Invisible Mansfield

When black and white histories collided in their small town, Phyllis Allen and fellow church members made sure Mansfield didn't white-wash the truth.

But that answer doesn't satisfy Phyllis Allen or the Reverend Michael Evans, the young pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. Two things puzzle them: Why was the historical society so anxious to get an advance peek at the oral history transcript? And if the society had so much concern for the church, why didn't it let the church see the transcript at the same time?

"It was our project," Allen says flatly. "If we weren't jumping up and down on the ceiling saying where is our $1,500 and a transcript, why were they so bent out of shape? What was their rush?"

The collision course of Mansfield's black and white histories was set in motion from the project's very beginnings. The church and the society clearly had different expectations for the project, both in timing and content, Allen admits.

The historical society expected the project would be completed in time to be incorporated into its book, The History of Mansfield. Felix Wong told the society that the oral history would indeed be ready by the book's May 1996 deadline. But when that time came and went with no transcript from Solamillo, the historical society grew anxious.

Nifong says she and other members visited Wong regularly, asking for a progress report. The historical society's newsletter even took a few potshots at the project, making sharp remarks about its tardiness. "The black oral history project has not been completed, and everyone is disappointed that it will not be included in our history book," someone wrote in the May 1996 newsletter. "Before we ever again participate in a project of this type, we will certainly check the organization's credentials for ourself," the newsletter added, referring to Solamillo's historic preservationist outfit, The Research and Media Group.

In late October or early November 1996, Wong released a draft version of the project to the historical society, which did not include a copy of the interview transcript, according to a letter the historical society sent to Wong. Nothing was passed on to the church by either the city or the historical society.

This release of the draft prompted even more pressure from the historical society, as well as a barrage of questions and criticisms in the society's newsletter. Then in January, Nifong sent a pointed letter to Wong asking about the status of the project and its funding. The letter made it appear that it was written on behalf of both the society and the church.

A week later, Wong released one draft copy of the oral history project--including the transcript of interviews--to Nifong and the society. Its contents shocked the members.

Recorded in its pages, for example, was the pettiness of former "night watchman" Bud Pierce, as remembered by Lillie Lawson. Pierce, who worked as night watchman from 1943 to 1952, was notorious for harassing black people he'd encounter walking on the street.

"He wouldn't ever want you on the street," Lawson says in the transcript. "Never no black face on front [Main Street]. If that wasn't Jim Crow, I don't know what you would call it."

There were tales of how stores wouldn't sell black people proper cuts of meat, but only the waste ends of animals--parts such as pig's feet or knuckles. Mansfield shopkeepers wouldn't touch your hands when giving change, instead letting the money drop on the counter. They wouldn't give blacks paper sacks to carry groceries, but bagged their purchases in old cabbage or onion sacks.

The February 1997 historical society newsletter registered displeasure with the transcript. "Initial reports are less than optimistic about the quality," the newsletter said in an unsigned item commenting on Solamillo's draft version of the project. "We can only hope that the positive aspects will outweigh the negative and it will be of some value to future historians."

No part of this transcript was forwarded to the church for review. To the Reverend Evans, this behavior smacked of the same off-handed ignorance with which the city had always treated its black community.

"The level of arrogance in the city government is just appalling," Evans says. "It's a fact when people get a hold of history, they tend to change things."

Evans, 30, is a relative newcomer to Mansfield. He grew up in Houston, a post-Civil Rights-era child. Coming to Mansfield, he says, he's had to retread much of the ground he thought history had already covered.

The church finally found out that the transcript was available in March when someone called Evans--he won't say who--and told him that the historical society had already had the documents for a month and was editing them. Evans was livid. He fired off a harsh letter to the society's officers, railing against what he called a "white-washing" of Mansfield's history.

"If this kind of backroom behavior persists, may God have mercy on your souls; for you would have committed theft of $1,500 in funding, theft of our trust in Mrs. Nifong and the organization she represents, and you [would] have robbed the Mansfield community of all races of the truths of history," he letter stated.

Nifong was stunned by these fighting words. Where on earth was the church getting the idea that the historical society would change anything in the transcript? she wonders. The reaction of Evans and the church hurt her deeply.

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