60 years ago, 3 black teens tried to enroll in Mansfield High — ‘never’ was the reply

On Aug. 30, 1956, only white students entered Mansfield High School with an effigy hanging over the door. Black students who had attempted to enroll were turned away.
On Aug. 30, 1956, only white students entered Mansfield High School with an effigy hanging over the door. Black students who had attempted to enroll were turned away. UTA Special Collection

Floyd Moody still vividly recalls what he was told 60 years ago.

Along with two other students, Moody was trying to become part of history by being the first African-Americans to integrate Mansfield High School.

Now a pastor at Mount Horum Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood, Moody, 76, was sitting across a conference table from then-Mansfield Superintendent R.L. Huffman in August of 1956.

“I can remember the conversation was very short,” Moody said. “It didn’t take very long for this man sitting across at the end of that table with those thick eyebrows saying, ‘You will never enter this school.’ Those were the words.”

Mansfield became the first Texas school district ordered to integrate when the U.S. 5th Circuit Court ruled that it was “unlawful” to prevent Moody, his cousin, Charles Moody and Nathaniel Jackson from enrolling at Mansfield High School on the basis of race. Charles Moody was the nephew of Mansfield NAACP leader T.M. Moody, who helped lead the effort to integrate Mansfield schools.

The lawsuit followed the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.

Mobs would gather three times in 1956 — on Aug. 30 and 31 and Sept. 4 — in front of the school. Three effigies would be hung — one strung on wires across Main Street, a second from a flagpole in front of the high school and another above the school’s entrance.

Floyd Moody, then 16, would spend his junior and senior year at I.M. Terrell High School, the Fort Worth school district’s African-American high school, which almost all black students in Tarrant County attended.

To get there, Moody would have to walk 3 miles to catch a 7 a.m. Continental Trailways bus in Mansfield to downtown Fort Worth, then walk to I.M. Terrell. But Floyd Moody had no desire to go to Mansfield High School and was actually relieved when he learned he would keep going to I.M. Terrell.

First class graduated in 1966

It would take nearly a decade, until the fall of 1965, for Mansfield to finally integrate when it faced the potential loss of federal funding after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Moody’s younger brother, Charles Edward Moody, along with Brenda Norwood, were among the students in that first integrated class.

“The laws changed whereby it was mandatory for the schools to desegregate,” Norwood said. “That was in 1965. When they told us the laws had changed, I fell apart.”

Fifty years after she graduated and seven years after she retired, Norwood is back teaching at Mansfield’s Elizabeth Smith Elementary. Norwood, who became a teacher in 1996, plans to retire again when the school year ends and has spent her career trying to raise awareness by teaching a multicultural class for many years.

The city and school district have changed dramatically.

In 1956, Mansfield schools had 700 white students and 56 black students. It’s now one of the area’s most diverse with 37 percent Anglo students, 26 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.

“This is where I used to pick cotton, but look at it now,” said Norwood, referring to the Elizabeth Smith campus. “As far as how Mansfield has changed — wow — it has been amazing. But I still see some of that old mentality. I’m sorry to say it’s still here.”

During her one year at Mansfield High School, Norwood said that it was difficult but that the atmosphere improved as the year went on.

“I think it was harder on the boys than the girls,” Norwood said.

‘This happened before Little Rock’

That was especially true for Charles Moody, 68. He never felt at home during his one year at Mansfield High and also lost the opportunity to play baseball because of the long commute while attending I.M. Terrell.

“I tried as hard as I could,” Charles Moody said. “I did graduate, but when you’ve got all eyes on you, it’s kind of hard to concentrate.”

Charles Moody doesn’t see his role as significant. He was just a high school student who was told to go to Mansfield High. He feels differently about his older brother’s role.

“I’m mostly proud of my brother, who opened the doors so we could go,” Charles Moody said.

Fort Worth civil-rights activist Kyev Tatum says he plans to honor Floyd Moody’s role this August on the 60th anniversary of the attempt to integrate. His goal is to obtain historical markers in Mansfield and Fort Worth, and he plans to work toward getting a documentary filmed about the subject.

“In the 60 years since this happened, there’s never been a historical marker or a movie about this incident,” Tatum said. “We want to do a marker where he got on the bus in Mansfield and where he got off in Fort Worth. People need to remember this happened before Little Rock.”

The heated battle to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School occurred in 1957 and ultimately succeeded when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops after violence erupted.

A year earlier, Eisenhower refused to get involved in the Mansfield desegregation battle. Instead Gov. Allan Shivers, who had a close relationship with Eisenhower, sent Texas Rangers to preserve the peace and said the school board should transfer any students out of the district if their attempts to enroll incited violence.

Floyd Moody doesn’t dwell on being denied enrollment. He tried to ignore the hostility and threats.

“I kind of shut things out at that point,” Floyd Moody said. “All I heard at that point was, ‘You’re not going,’ so I’m ready to start at I.M. Terrell when school starts. That’s it.”

In front of the school, a mob roughed up Episcopal priest C.W. Clark from St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth. He had to be pulled to safety by a Texas Ranger, according to Star-Telegram archives.

“Everything was lovely when we left, but that evening, man, everybody in the city had heard,” Floyd Moody said. “The word had gotten out that three black students were trying to enroll in Mansfield High School.”

Fort Worth attorney Clifford Davis, 91, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the three students and the NAACP. Davis, who was also involved in the long battle to integrate Fort Worth schools and has an elementary school named for him, said tensions were high in Mansfield leading up to the start of the 1956 school year.

“They put the effigy figure on the flagpole,” Davis said. “The morning of the school opening, we were talking with the parents about the climate and what was happening. We were not going to go up there on that campus. We asked the attorney general and President Eisenhower to intervene, with no response.”

‘You can’t live with hate’

The battle might never have erupted if the Mansfield school board had listened to some parents’ concerns.

White students went to Erma Nash Elementary, then Mansfield High School, but African-American students went to the Colored School on West Broad Street through the eighth grade. For high school, they had to pay to ride a Continental Trailways bus to I.M. Terrell. After school, they had to ride the bus back to Mansfield.

If they wanted to play sports or be involved in other extracurricular activities, it often meant they would not get home until late.

The Colored School had no electricity, no running water and only one teacher for students in the first through eighth grade. There were also concerns about children being injured while playing close to the road.

Community leaders asked for a flagpole, a fence between the playground and West Broad Street and a bus to take the high school students to Fort Worth. All of the requests were denied.

“The school board wouldn’t do any of those things, so they came to me for some assistance,” Davis said.

After trying to enroll his son, Floyd Moody’s father, a sharecropper, was forced to move off his land. The landowner’s children, who had played with Floyd Moody as a child, also opposed integration.

To Floyd Moody, the heroes were his parents, the parents of the other two students, along with T.M. Moody and Davis.

“My dad was already prepared for it,” Floyd Moody said. “Out of all the black parents in Mansfield, there was only three that had the courage to stand up and say ‘This is what’s right. And I’ll do it even if I have to move. I’m going to go through with it even if I lose my job.’ 

Floyd Moody is ambivalent about the effort to establish historic markers but said he is worried about the Mansfield struggle being forgotten.

Yet Moody said he long ago forgave those who stopped him from enrolling.

“You can’t live with animosity in you,” Moody said. “You can’t live with hate. It takes you out quick. Love is the only way that you’re going to live a full, successful life.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

Mansfield school district

Student ethnic distribution

▪ Anglo: 37.3 percent

▪ African-American: 26.5 percent

▪ Hispanic: 24.7 percent

▪ Asian: 6.4 percent

▪ Two or more races: 4.5 percent

▪ American Indian: 0.4 percent

▪ Pacific Islander: 0.1 percent