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.

Every seat in the meeting room of the Mansfield Historical Society was filled with uneasy occupants. Tension suffused the tiny space. The people jittered and shifted like popcorn kernels just about to explode.

Around the walls, the faces of Mansfield's white founding families looked on, gazing serenely from a series of black-and-white photographic portraits. If they'd suddenly come back to life, they would not have been able to comprehend what was happening this day.

It seems there were rumors, based on tidbits of fact filtered through folks, that the white-run historical society was excising the juiciest bits of a transcript recording the spoken memories of elderly African-Americans who'd participated in an oral history project.

It would turn out that the rumors were false. But the belief in them among certain black Mansfield residents surely was real.

What's certain was that the contents of this project caught the historical society off-guard. Parts of it were downright embarrassing--like the tale about the white funeral home owner who wouldn't embalm the bodies of black people, or deign to carry them in his hearse.

Feelings were running hot among the black and white Mansfield residents who'd participated in the project. This March 21 historical society meeting was shaping up to be a showdown--between black and white versions of the city's past.

On the surface, though, small-town politeness reigned. The discourse among the 20 men and women who'd come to the historical society's headquarters for this meeting was civil. But just beneath the calm words and reassuring phrases were recriminations that had been simmering for months.

Phyllis Allen, dressed casually in a blue denim jumper, sat at one end of the long table in the center of the room. She was the lone black person in a space filled with whites. Yet Allen's erect bearing and unwavering gaze made it seem as if she'd come backed by an army.

She carried with her the questions and concerns of Mansfield's Bethlehem Baptist Church, which had felt slighted and betrayed by the project it helped pay for. The oral history participants were all members of this, the city's oldest church. They had the biggest stake in making sure the transcripts were complete and accurate.

"We are concerned because things were done without our knowledge," Allen began, carefully placing each word. "We are concerned because we have heard nothing, and suddenly there is a transcript that others have seen and we haven't. We understand that when you have the kind of history that exists in Mansfield, you may have some problems. The transcript doesn't cast a great light on Mansfield."

Fran Nifong, the historical society's president, looked straight back at Allen, answering with a voice that mixed charm and incredulity. Her gestures make it known that her comments represented all the members seated around her.

"All we have done is support this oral history project," she said in a gentle Southern voice. "All we did was correct spellings. We wouldn't delete anything from it. We're not allowed to."

Allen remained diplomatic but firm. Historically, she explained, black people hadn't been treated too well in Mansfield. Since they'd caught a whiff of impropriety in the oral history project, that was enough to establish in the minds of some that wrongdoing actually existed. The real problem, she said, was that Bethlehem Baptist had been shut out of all but the earliest stages of the history-gathering process. And it was only through rumor that they'd found out the written transcript of interviews with elderly Mansfield blacks was now available.

That clearly rankled Bethlehem's church folk. Copies of the transcript had been circulating for weeks among the historical society members, and no one had bothered to tell the church.

"We don't want a project that sneaks quietly into town and then is put in some dust-covered room," Allen said. "Often between the happening and the telling, things change. People dug into sores in their souls that they thought had scabbed over, but they found out that the infection was still there."

What Allen had said amounted to an accusation. She believed the historical society was attempting to tamper with the transcript.

Nifong looked aghast. Some of the other society members murmured and shook their heads.

"I have lots of friends at Bethlehem," Nifong said in an incredulous voice. "The historical society has wanted to do something on African-American history since its beginning. We were a supporter."

Allen didn't veer from her argument. She told the group that city planner Felix Wong, who'd overseen the history project, had released the transcript to the society--but not the church--because his job had been threatened by historical society members.

Moments later, Wong stepped into the meeting room. Nifong immediately put him on the spot.

"We did question you from time to time," she said sweetly. "But we didn't make any threats or exert any undue pressure."

Wong sidestepped the issue entirely, going on to talk about how sorry he was that he hadn't released the documents to the church. He would later say that the supposed threats were simply a misunderstanding.

Then the historic preservationist who compiled the oral history spoke up. "I did not want to have any of this project released," said Stan Solamillo, who'd literally been holding himself throughout the meeting, with legs and arms crossed. Solamillo, a Dallas man of mixed white, Hispanic, and Filipino ancestry, later said he'd felt as though the historical society had tried to take over the project and change it. He wouldn't allow it.

After nearly three hours of tense discussion, Nifong more or less negotiated a truce. She pledged to publicize the oral history in Mansfield, whatever its contents. Wong promised to keep Bethlehem Baptist better informed about the project.

The conciliatory words, however, failed to hide the distrust that lingered in the stuffy room. Neither the church nor the society would surrender its own perceptions of the truth.

But for just a moment, a prominent town scion had had her sunny view of history challenged, a historian found his objectivity tested, and the city's oldest black church had lifted the veil and enabled people to catch a glimpse of the real historical black Mansfield.

"When this project was originally proposed, what did you anticipate you would get?" Allen asked Nifong near the end of the meeting.

Nifong let out a sigh. "I'm not sure what I expected," she said. "But it wasn't this."

Mansfield's oral history project was launched two years ago, when the city of 22,000 received a grant to record the recollections of its black population. The city paid Stan Solamillo $6,000 to compile the history, which was to be finished within nine months. The grant covered only half of that fee, so both the historical society and Bethlehem Baptist forked over $1,500 to make up the difference.

The problems cropped up as the project dragged on longer than nine months. Parts of the oral history transcript, which gathered the thoughts of seven elderly black residents, filtered out to the historical society members early this year, but not to the church.

Society members were shocked by what they read: This certainly wasn't the quaint collection of remembrances they'd expected. Within the pages of the transcript, black residents challenged the happy memories of Mansfield that many white people had cherished, revealing that their city had been rife with petty acts of racism throughout the decades.

Among the black residents' recollections was the accusation that Ernie Blessing, the white former owner of the local funeral home, wouldn't bother to embalm the bodies of black people. And instead of using a hearse, he'd carry their coffins in a shabby truck and bury them in shallow graves.

Another person recalled that blacks weren't allowed to walk on Main Street unless they were carrying a bag--indicating they'd made a purchase somewhere. Nor were they allowed to try on clothes before they bought them.

Pam Armstrong, a historic preservationist who is editing Solamillo's oral history transcript, says she received a frantic phone call earlier this year from Nifong, who couldn't believe what black residents had said about the Blessings.

"'Why, he gave ice cream to the colored kids,'" Armstrong recalls Nifong saying. "I told her that may be her recollection, but it wasn't as important to them as the way their dead were being buried and the way they were generally treated."

Today, Nifong says she had no knowledge of how blacks were treated at the city's only funeral home and doesn't recall making that statement to Armstrong. "The daughter-in-law of Ernie Blessing is a good friend of mine," she says. "I don't remember any adverse things as a child growing up. We were all in the same boat."

Like many small towns in Texas and the Southwest, the history of Mansfield that is written in books belongs to the victors; those who constructed buildings, paved roads, cleared land, brought railroads, and carried on commerce. And so, much of Mansfield's recorded history begins with the first wave of white settlers who arrived at the rolling prairies of North Central Texas in the 1840s.

According to the Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey, most of these settlers were Scotch-Irish in origin, pioneer farmers mostly from southern states. Mansfield grew up around the grist mill owned by the town's namesakes, R.S. Mann and Julian Feild. The mill was built on what would become the city's crossroads: Main Street, which leads north toward Fort Worth, and Broad Street, which runs east and west.

Mansfield is still a growing town. Sub-divisions have sprung up on old farmlands, and chain restaurants and major stores such as Wal-Mart and Pier 1 Imports are locating shops within city limits. The town is becoming a bedroom community for Fort Worth, Arlington, and Dallas.

The history of black Mansfield, according to Solamillo's transcript, dates back to the 1850s. While no one has pinned down exact dates for the initial settlement, many of the city's first black residents are thought to have arrived as slaves sometime in the mid-1800s. The population remained relatively small until just after the turn of the century, when families began arriving from other parts of the country.

Maggie Briscoe, now 79, came to Mansfield from Bryan in 1925 when she was just eight years old. Briscoe was one of the seven longtime Mansfield residents interviewed for the oral history project. She says her family moved because a relative had said the living was easier in Mansfield.

Back in those days, sharecropping was the living, she says. And everyone had to work, even the children. "I didn't get to to school until the first part of September, because we picked cotton," Briscoe recalls.

The sharecropping life was arduous. While both black and white sharecroppers farmed for a cut of the landlord's crops, black workers were often left with very little to show for their hard work, Briscoe says. Oftentimes sharecroppers had to purchase seeds and other supplies from the farmer, all of which would be deducted from the harvest, leaving a meager profit.

"Sometimes, we'd pick three or four bales [of cotton] before I heard [my father] say he cleared any," Briscoe says. "It was kind of rough. But we survived. That's just how it was back then."

Mansfield had experienced its most rapid stage of growth early this century, fueled by waves of displaced white Southerners looking to start new lives in Texas, and black families looking for better opportunities. But like many small towns in Texas, Mansfield's black residents had to abide by the "Black Codes"--laws structured to limit the freedom of black people. They were adopted throughout Texas in 1891.

In a section of the oral history draft titled "A Society of Meanness," Mansfield under Jim Crow is portrayed as "the geographical and political backwaters of the state." The town's isolation guaranteed that its racist local customs would be carried out without much question or scrutiny. Blacks effectively were prevented from voting by such devices as a poll tax and land ownership requirements.

Today, Mansfield is famous for two things. It was the home of author Howard Griffin, who wrote Black Like Me, first published in 1961. In the book, Griffin, a white man, darkens his skin through a special dermatological process and travels throughout the South to experience what life was like as a black man.

Mansfield is also the site of the first school desegregation case in Texas. In 1956, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, on behalf of a black Mansfield resident named T.M. Moody and a handful of black schoolchildren, sued the Mansfield School District, seeking desegregation of Mansfield High School. A state appeals court issued the desegregation order, but it was met by tremendous resistance from Mansfield's white population.

Hundreds of whites gathered around Mansfield High School the day the black students were supposed to register, waiting for the children to show up. The world watched as white residents hanged a black person in effigy from the school flagpole, while another was strung up elsewhere in town. Neither the local police nor the Texas Rangers would provide protection for the students to register. In the end, the students didn't, opting instead to continue the more than 90-minute one-way bus ride to Fort Worth to attend segregated I.M. Terrell High. Mansfield schools were finally desegregated in 1965, but only after the federal government threatened to withhold education subsidies.

These events are all part of the town lore, known to most anyone who lives in Mansfield. What the oral history project brought out were the everyday stings of racism--small acts for which every white person living in Mansfield was guilty. Looking back, every resident could consider the events surrounding desegregation and deplore them. With hindsight, they were easily identified as evil. But the little things--the "local customs"--were much more difficult to acknowledge or disown. Everyone in Mansfield at the time participated, either directly or indirectly by allowing these customs to remain in place. The oral history interview subjects showed that these small acts of bigotry hurt far more than the sight of burning effigies.

McClendon Moody, a distant relative of desegregation plaintiff T.M. Moody, recalled in the oral history project how black shoppers on Main Street were treated back then.

"It was meanness going on then," he says in the report. "You don't walk through a store unless you buy something. And if you wanted to buy a pair of shoes, pants, shirt, whatever, you better know your size because you didn't put them on or pull them off."

Today, Moody admits he has a love-hate relationship with Mansfield. He hates its past, but admires what his city is becoming. Moody, 68, a cook by trade, became the city's first democratically elected black city council member in 1988. Two small parks and a city street bear his name. During interviews, however, he still recalls the slights, petty harassments, and intimidations that were part of daily life in earlier days.

"A guy was making a U-turn and ran into me," Moody says in the transcript. "I got the ticket...just because I was on the front street. I wasn't supposed to have been there."

Maggie Briscoe says she had no real troubles with white people in Mansfield, but fear always marked the interactions between blacks and whites.

"Tell you the truth, I've always been a little afraid of white men," Briscoe says. In her mind, that fear was justified by experience. As a child, Briscoe and some friends had to cut across a field while walking home from school. A group of four or five white boys would often lie in wait for the girls and chase them. Briscoe and her friends would run for their very lives, fearing what would happen if the boys caught them.

"If they ever did catch us, they probably would have thrown us down and raped us and tore us up to pieces," she says.

Briscoe's friends would stick close to a fence and run up a hill, knowing once they got to the crest, they'd be safe. At the top, there would be sharecroppers' houses lining the edge of the field. Houses meant people and help.

"They would chase us two or three times a week. But they never did catch us," she says.

In Mansfield, according to a draft of Solamillo's oral history report, these sorts of incidents were routine. "Such actions remained unquestioned and unmitigated in Mansfield society," Solamillo wrote.

The historic preservationist has a tough time telling a straight story, because people's memories are circular, not linear. That's a lesson Stan Solamillo learned while working on the Mansfield project.

Compiling an oral history requires more than just interviewing the subjects, he says. The interviews must be transcribed, and once they are, the information must be verified and set in some sort of context with the rest of known history. It is a painstaking process, made even more difficult by the pressures Solamillo imposed on himself.

From the beginning, he was determined not to allow Mansfield's oral history to end up like so many other black oral history projects done in Texas. He points to the Works Progress Administration's former slave narrative project done in the 1930s. The results, he says, were slanted and questionable. The interviewers took handwritten notes and never tape-recorded their subjects. The notes were transcribed into reports much later, and Solamillo says they don't appear to reflect the language of the interviewees.

"There was a lot of use of the 'N' word ascribed to the interviewees," Solamillo says. "We can't be sure whether that was real or not."

Solamillo is only a part-time preservationist. He works full time for the City of Dallas in its Target Neighborhoods program. Before that, he was an architect for 13 years. A normally intense man, Solamillo prides himself on maintaining a professional distance from his historical work. Such distance is precious for the preservationist. It helps keep things in perspective, allowing him to look at hurtful, sometimes embarrassing events of history dispassionately. It's a way to keep fair, he says.

But Mansfield got to him. He says he was struck by the courage of the interviewees. As he researched their tales, using funeral records, Tarrant County history books, and census information, he began to see a story--their story. He drew conclusions.

"I was struck by their humble strength," he says. "It is not arrogant. It is what heroes and heroines are, common people who do uncommon things."

A few months into the project, he found himself siding with the interviewees, whose history had been consigned to silence. He remembered his own untold history. His Filipino grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 1920s to work on a sugarcane plantation; he used to show Solamillo the old homestead whenever he went to visit. But the place was razed in the 1960s, long before Solamillo got a chance to learn anything about it.

Historic minority communities "are either built over or are in the process of disappearing," Solamillo says. "My concern is getting the generation of people who have these memories. The loss of material is irreplaceable."

He admits the Mansfield project dragged on far longer than it should have. Every time he tried to speed up the process, he discovered something else that warranted delving into. First it was desegregation. Then it was the Black Codes. As he wove these events into the oral history narrative, it began to haunt him. He began to lose perspective. Once he realized that, he called in other preservationists to help him gather information and edit his material.

"When I began to take five and six edits on a section, I realized it was too much," he says. "I needed other eyes to make sure that the narrative was correct."

What he has now, he says, is a more-than-200-page document, including edited and unedited transcripts of interviews with the black Mansfield residents. It is complete and accurate, he says.

The flap between the historical society and Bethlehem Baptist didn't surprise Solamillo. He'd done another project in another city that was met with surprise and denial, and realized that people don't like to have their perceptions challenged.

"It kind of hit me in the face as we were sitting there at that meeting," Solamillo says of the March 21 face-off between Allen and the historical society. "It was typically Southern, because it was like, 'We don't want to talk about that.' And I'm going, 'Well, wait a minute. You've got to talk about it. There are people still hurting from this. This is how we in our society grow. We have to sit and talk about it.'"

"Look, I just don't know why all this unfortunate business has happened," says Fran Nifong, the Mansfield Historical Society president. "I truly regret it. I just did what I thought was good for everybody."

Nifong is earnest when she says this. She describes herself as a Mansfield person. Charming and witty, she's an old-school Southern belle with silver-plate manners. For her, the inquiries she made and letters she wrote to city planner Felix Wong about the black oral history project were a practical means of monitoring what had happened to the money allocated for the project. She did what she did to benefit both the church and the historical society, she says--not to threaten Wong about the project's contents.

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.

"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.

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