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August 24th, 2011
Bartee Haile: White mob defies court order to desegregate school

This Week in Texas History: A column

An angry mob 400 strong blocked the entrance to Mansfield High School on Aug. 30, 1956 to prevent the court-ordered enrollment of black students.

In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a 58-year-old ruling in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the historic decision all nine justices unanimously agreed separate education was “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional.

In Texas, Gov. Allan Shivers’ bid for a third two-year term had turned into a dog fight with Ralph Yarborough. Knowing his liberal opponent had to support the Supreme Court stance on segregated education, Shivers appealed to the fears of white Texans on the emotional issue of “race mixing” in the schools. To make the choice as clear as day in advance of the July run-off, the incumbent repeatedly called his opponent an “n-word lover.”

Yarborough tried in vain to play down his pro-civil rights past but never had a chance. Shivers became the first governor in Texas history ever elected to three terms. In September 1954, private Catholic schools in San Antonio took the initiative to admit black applicants with little fuss and even less publicity. Other parochial systems around the state soon followed the quiet example of the Alamo City.
Sixty-four public districts officially adopted a color-blind admissions policy the next school year. Besides major cities like San Antonio and El Paso, the long list included medium-size towns such as Hillsboro, Kerrville, Denison, San Angelo and Harlingen.

The trailblazers had two key things in common: First, black children comprised a tiny portion of the student population. Second, only elementaries were affected.

Mansfield in the mid-1950s was a farming community of 1,500 in the southeastern corner of Tarrant County. Black children that outgrew the run-down grammar school reserved for their race had to ride a bus at their own expense into Fort Worth to attend an all-black secondary school.

When three black teens, two cousins and a friend, attempted to register for classes at Mansfield High School in September 1955, they were turned away. Two months later in federal district in Fort Worth, Judge Joseph E. Estes found in favor of the young plaintiffs but stopped short of requiring their immediate admission. Instead, he gave the Mansfield school board “a reasonable length of time to solve its problems and end segregation.”

Rather than coming up with a plan to comply with the law, the board procrastinated and appealed. His patience exhausted, Judge Estes issued an order on Aug. 27, 1956 requiring Mansfield High to admit all qualified students for the new term starting Sep. 4.

As soon as the desegregation order was made public, T.M. Moody, father of one plaintiff and uncle of another, began receiving telephone threats. Fearing for his safety and that of his family, armed members of Mansfield’s black community stood watch.The first of three effigies, a scarecrow figure with black hands and face, was hung on Main Street during the night of Aug. 28. A hand-drawn sign warned ominously, “This Negro tried to enter a white school.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised by almost anything happening in Mansfield within the next few days,” said the police chief just before leaving town for the Labor Day Weekend. In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, Aug. 30, first day of high school registration, a second effigy appeared on the flagpole in front the main building. Asked by a reporter whether he felt he should remove the inflammatory symbol, the principal answered, “I didn’t put it there and I’m not going to take it down.”

Friday the 31st was the day set aside for the registration of students living outside the city limits. Since the black neighborhood was located beyond the boundary, this meant Friday would be the day the crisis came to a head.

The school superintendent arrived early and addressed the crowd. “Now you guys know I’m with you, but I’ve got this mandate hanging over my head.” Also hanging over his head was a third effigy. As further proof of which side he was on, the educator pointed out two back doors that could provide access to the black outcasts.

Two Texas Rangers sent by the lame-duck governor arrived on the scene later that morning. Their orders were not to escort black students into the high school but to “protect against violence.” Shivers, who had decided against seeking a fourth term, also instructed the school board to “transfer out” any student whose presence threatened the peace. With the black students a no-show, the mob dispersed late that afternoon. Businesses that had closed in solidarity with the segregationists reopened, and everyone went home.

A small crowd of 200 returned to the high school for the first day of classes on Tuesday, Sep. 4. Nine Rangers, six in uniform and three in plainclothes, were present along with the Tarrant County sheriff and several deputies.

There was no trouble. Rather than risk their lives, the black students settled for a second-class but safe education at the segregated school in Fort Worth.

Mansfield High stayed lily-white until 1965. Threatened with a cut-off of federal funds, the town that could have been Texas’ Little Rock finally did the right thing.

Commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial with “Secession & Civil War” from the “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today at or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

CORRECTION: This column was originally published in error as “Freethought San Marcos,” Lamar Hankin’s weekly piece.


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