Fence dividing white, black cemeteries seen as odious relic

MANSFIELD — A fence divides two cemeteries, one founded for white people, the other for blacks.

The fence has been there as long as anyone locally can remember. It stayed up, and presumably was replaced a few times, after the U.S. military was integrated in 1948, after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in 1954 and after the Mansfield schools were forcibly integrated in 1965.

The U.S. even elected a half-black president in 2008.

Yet the fence is still there.

Plenty of people in Mansfield, one of the fastest-growing cities in Tarrant County and one that is increasingly diverse in its racial and ethnic makeup, probably aren’t even aware of the fence or paid any mind to the statement it has made for so many years.

But some longtime residents, particularly blacks, want it gone as a different kind of statement.

“It’s symbolic,” said Brenda Norwood, a retired teacher who with her husband started a local Juneteenth celebration more than 20 years ago. “It represents separatism. There’s no place for it, not in this time and age. It needs to come down.”

Whether it does anytime soon is still unknown.

The fence sits on property owned by the Mansfield Cemetery Association, a nonprofit organization that owns and maintains the graveyard, and that organization has not made its feelings known publicly.

“We have not discussed it,” said Jo Ann Harris, president of the association. “It had never been brought to us before [until last month]. Until the association has a chance to talk about it, there’s nothing to say.”

Mansfield Mayor David Cook said he would like the fence removed, but that’s only a personal position, not one the city can do anything about.

“It’s a barrier that needs to be removed,” Cook said. “In today’s society, I would like to see one big community cemetery. But I don’t believe there is anything the city can do about a private property owner issue. I can facilitate the dialogue, as an attorney and a certified mediator. I would be glad to utilize those skills to get those two associations working together to resolve it for the best.”

Generations past

The small “colored” cemetery dates to the early 1870s on land believed to be donated by Ralph Man, half of the pair who founded the town. The Mansfield Cemetery, on much larger property to the south, is about the same age and is courtesy of a similar gift from Man. Both graveyards are just south of downtown.

A simple sign overlooking the black cemetery calls it the Mansfield Community Cemetery. The word colored has been painted over.

The cemetery for blacks is not particularly organized, with graves and headstones placed in most cases wherever the family wanted. Over the years, nature took over a portion of the cemetery and obscured many graves, some of them marked only with a simple rock by a family who could afford no more.

Several freed slaves are buried in the cemetery, as well as generations of old Mansfield black families who worked hard, in anonymity and without the benefit of much schooling.

“My mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, an uncle and aunt are all here,” said Elliott Lawson, 85, who grew up in Mansfield. “My grandfather came here as a slave. He was bought off a man named Lawson, and he kept the name.”

The cemetery is not used as often anymore and is not nearly as popular with black families as Cedar Hill Cemetery and Skyvue Memorial Gardens. Lawson, for instance, will be buried at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery because of his service in the Army in World War II.

Black families who have lived in Mansfield for many years said they’ve never known a black resident to be buried in the Mansfield Cemetery, even though they are presumably entitled. More than one longtime resident said they would never ask to be buried there, not even now, simply because “it’s just understood,” said Norman Norwood, the husband of Brenda Norwood.

Lingering memories

Mansfield bears racial scars, the worst from the 1950s and ’60s when conflict erupted over integration of the public schools, and a pervasive sense of an east-west divide — the west being the original “colored” section of town — has lingered long past those stormy days.

The city is a much different place now, and it is likely that many of its 56,000 residents know nothing of that era.

The explosive population growth in the last 20 years has produced a city in which a third of its residents are black, Hispanic or Asian.

Two weekends ago, blacks and whites from numerous churches celebrated jointly at the Juneteenth celebration marking the day slaves in Texas received news of their freedom, and city leaders have worked to mend relations in part by acknowledging the ugly parts of history.

Similarly, the black cemetery has undergone a transformation in recent months.

It got a sprucing up by community volunteers, a new gated entrance and a brick pavilion, all efforts spurred by Pastor Michael Evans from Bethlehem Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Tarrant County.

He, along with members of the black cemetery association, met in May with members of the Mansfield Cemetery Association to ask whether they would bring the fence down amid the renewed discussion on race relations and history.

Evans said the meeting caused “a bit of angst and confusion,” although he said he has “genuine affection” for the volunteers with the Mansfield Cemetery Association.

“I honestly believe that there was and is a remnant of individuals who did not know or understand what that dividing line was for,” Evans said. “It has been expressed to them what that fence symbolizes. Our hope now is that the seeds of knowledge have been planted, and the individuals will come to learn and understand the meaning of the fence and why it’s offensive.

“We hope that calm, cool heads will prevail, and the fence will come down as a joint act between both associations.”

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

Read more: http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/06/28/3186653/in-mansfield-fence-dividing-white.html#ixzz1RkzIzIKp

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