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.

"I was so shocked," she says. "I spent the whole weekend crying. I thought I had lots of friends over there."

She does admit that quite a bit of the material in the transcript troubles her. While she doesn't dispute the information, she doesn't share these memories. The accounts seemed to describe an alien culture. "I didn't grow up where there was any hatred of anyone," she says.

To Nifong, Mansfield was a happy place, where no one was particularly rich or poor. Everyone had kerosene lamps and outhouses. The town was one big family, and it included black people. As if to prove this, she talks about two black women, Liddy and Pos, who used to travel with Nifong to Glen Rose to drink the sulfur water--which supposedly had medicinal properties--when she was a child. Those are treasured memories, she says.

That Liddy and Pos worked for Nifong's family had no bearing on their excitement over the trip. "You know, they had good times too," she says. "They looked forward to going and possibly wouldn't have had the opportunity to go if it hadn't been for us."

Perception is often reality, particularly in a community as marginalized as Mansfield's historic black community, Phyllis Allen says. Allen, 42, is not a Mansfield native or resident, although she grew up in neighboring Fort Worth. What she knows of Mansfield she learned from twice-weekly visits to Bethlehem Baptist for church services. A saleswoman for Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages, Allen is both warm and direct in her words. She believes Evans asked her to oversee the oral history project for him because she wouldn't pull punches with either Wong or Nifong.

"I don't have to see these people in the grocery store, and I don't have my children in their schools," she says. "So that makes it easier for me to say whatever is on my mind."

At the March meeting of the historical society, she did just that. The church suspected that members of the historical society were altering the transcripts. Even if the society wasn't changing anything, Allen says, it was still guilty of being high-handed and rude in its treatment of Bethlehem Baptist. The two sides were equal partners in the effort, she says.

"I don't think [the historical society] set out to do anything evil," Allen says. "But I think when they read those transcripts, it was a shock. It was untidy and doesn't fit into what they want people to think about Mansfield."

City planner Wong responds that there were two reasons why the church wasn't notified immediately about the release of the oral history draft and transcript. One reason is his fault, he admits. The society was the squeaky wheel, and it got the grease.

"None of the church elders or deacons had contacted me," he says. "In hindsight, I should have given a copy to the church as well."

The other reason is that both Wong and the society thought that Shirley Washington, a Bethlehem Baptist member and black history chairwoman for the society, was supposed to pass the report on to the church. When the transcript came out, Nifong says, she assumed that Washington would forward it to the church. But no one specifically asked her to do so, and no one checked to see if she did.

Washington, for her part, isn't saying much about the project and referred all inquiries to Allen. She did say that she didn't receive a copy of the transcript until about the same time the church did, in early March.

The Reverend Evans believes the historical society is trying to make Washington a scapegoat.

"From my understanding, Mrs. Washington really didn't know much about what was going on," he says.

In the end, the dispute over the project boiled down to a fundamental difference in expectations, Pam Armstrong says. The historical society, she says, was looking for "bricks-and-mortar history," with people talking about the sorts of structures built, jobs they held, and influences they had on the community.

The church knew their members' stories would be different--more about everyday life and how it was lived. Those two lines of stories were bound to clash, she says.

Now that the two histories have converged, Evans says Bethlehem Baptist is kept informed about the ongoing project by both the city and the historical society.

"Oh, we're at the table now," Evans says, laughing. "I've had some of those people even come to the church and give me a hug."

Nifong is still smarting over the incident, and would just as soon see it quietly go away.

"Look, I've tried to tell as few people as possible about this," she says. "I've tried not to let anybody know there is any friction, because I think it can be resolved better if you don't go out and stand on a hill and yell about it."

But has the collision of histories changed anything in Mansfield? Not really, Allen says. For one thing, white people are still writing the city's history.

"But the difference now is that we said, 'Look, this is a different time, and these are different people,'" she says. "They have to understand that they can't just do things the way they want to because their name is on a couple of buildings.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest