Invisible Mansfield

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.

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Kaylois Henry