John Howard Griffin, Thomas Merton and the house in Mansfield

October 14, 2007 § 38 Comments

Phil in Mansfield1

My first husband Phil and I, before we were married, moved into this little house in Mansfield, Texas. It was 1971 or ’72; I was 19 and he was 21. A friend named Obie had found it first and went there to rent it, but for some reason it was not right for him. However, he came to our apartment straight away to tell us that we had to see it, that it was right for us. There was urgency in his voice and he convinced us to go right away to look at it. We currently were living in Arlington, Texas (Phil had been attending the University there).

Phil in Mansfield 2

We went the next day and it was right; we rented it and moved in. Mansfield at the time was a small hamlet south of Fort Worth and north of Midlothian, Texas, located on highway 287 with one blinking red light in town, at the highway. The house was located in the country over the preverbal “other side of the tracks”. It was sitting on 25 acres of grazing land and beyond that were 25 acres of woods. The house itself was one long room, with a kitchen at one end and the bathroom at the other; the living space was in-between. The whole wall facing out to the back yard acreage was glassed in from floor to ceiling, with an inside planter that had climbing geraniums growing that covered the windows. On the opposite wall was a wood burning fireplace where what looked like a Georgia O’Keefe painting hung.

Phil in Mansfield 2

We soon found out that this was the house where John Howard Griffin wrote the book “Black Like Me”. The main house, a couple hundred feet next door, was occupied by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Holland. She shared with us how proud she was of her son-in-law, and showed us some of his photographs. He was a photographer and put a book together on his photographs of his friend Thomas Merton, who was a trappist monk living at Our Lady of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky.

101407-mansfield3.jpgEvidently, he and Thomas Merton were very close and he visited Thomas many times. As you may be able to imagine, the house was magical; it was a magical time for Phil and I anyway with spiritual portals opening up and consciousness expanding. We feel like we were divinely guided to be in this house.

We eventually met Mr. Griffon, which was a highlight to our time there. We definitely felt touched by Thomas Merton, as well, and I continue to feel touched to this day.

I was sketchbooking back then; these thumbnails are some sketches I did while at Mansfield. Click to enlarge.

101407-mansfield4.jpg

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§ 38 Responses to John Howard Griffin, Thomas Merton and the house in Mansfield

  • […] katrinasmall wrote a fantastic post today on “John Howard Griffin, Thomas Merton and the house in Mansfield”Here’s ONLY a quick extractMy first husband Phil and I, before we were married, moved into this little house in Mansfield, Texas. It was 1971 or ’72; I was 19 and he was 21. A friend of ours had found it first and went there to rent it, but for some reason it was … […]

  • These sketches are so full of expression! Can’t wait to see more. Got any Dr.’s offices to wait in or the like? Or maybe your husband’s feet while watching TV?

  • Fantastic sketches! Thanks for the link.

  • dan says:

    Thanks for the Merton story about Griffin.

  • Fr.Irusan says:

    Ha ha ! You left out the good parts!
    I wrote a song about it, but guess I won’t post it here as the subject may be delicate! You didn’t mention Patrick! (No one knows where he is these days, it seems.) Remember the garden? 🙂 Remember your powerful portrait of Guru Ram Dass?
    By the way, I have been in contact with Obie – he came to Jeff’s wake. He is a DJ on KNON now, played my CD a couple of times. Same old Obie, he hasn’t aged a lot. His spice business is successful. His ex-wife Linda passed away some years ago, unfortunately.
    Anyway, I enjoyed the post – but only you and I know THE REST OF THE STORY…
    Om Shiva Shankara…
    pHIL

  • Tom Coleman says:

    Good to read this post while I was verifying Griffin’s connection with Mansfield. Mrs. Holland was my kindergarten teacher at St. Andrew’s school in Ft. Worth circa 1960 and she was indeed proud of her son in law, who wrote one of the most important (and influential) books of the “American Century.”

  • Cynthe Brush says:

    Your sketches are lyrical, almost animated. Fun to look at.

    Add ambiance to the fascinating story of this unique house & people associated with it. I read ‘Black Like Me’ in college. Compelling experiment for sure. Amazing your lives intertwined with the author and family.

    An original Georgia O’Keefee on the wall. WOW! She’s one of my all-time FAVs. My Mom & I saw a retrospective of O’Keefe’s work at the LA Art Museum. Such a treat! My own pastel & watercolor style is not dissimilar to hers….but I don’t use traditional media much these days.

  • Brad Bohon says:

    Thank you for the photos and the description of the house in which John Griffinf wrote “Black Like Me.” I too lived in that house, in 1974, for about 6 months when I was a student at Tarrent County Junior College. I had known the Griffins for years (Johnny Griffin, John Howard’s eldest son) was my best friend, and I was close to all his chilldren–Susie, Greg, and Amanda, whom we called Mandy. Mrs Holland, I remember, was called Bessie.)

    Mr. Griffin (he was always “Mr. Griffin” to me) could nbot have been kinder, and his wife, Elizabeth, whom I knew as Ma, truly was a Ma–she was to me. I lived in that house, as I said, for 6 months, and then, afgter one semester at TCJC, I took the road, hitchiking across the county for the summer. I returned to Texas to study and TCU, and then on with my life.

    Griffin, Merton, even Jacques Maritain spent time in that house. I remember the field facing the large front window: I would sometimes walk out into it and think about Thomas Merton also having walked there. (I believe was called Brother Louis, or Father Louis. . .)

    Anyway, thanks for the memeory.

    • Katrina says:

      Thank you for your story, Brad. I did not know that Thomas Merton had also stayed at the house; I am so honored and feel blessed, indeed. I wish there was a way to see the book of photographs that Mr. Griffon made of Thomas Merton again. If there were a photo of him at the house in Mansfield, that would be a truly wonderful thing to see.
      -Katrina

  • Oveniekveni says:

    Good page.. i will definitely come back again:D

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    Thank you very much for the Photos, I too it seems along with alot of folks lived in that house. I lived there from 1990-1992. I am John Howard Griffin’s youngest daughter, & all of us kids ( 1 sister, & 2 brothers) actually lived in that house in Mansfield at some point in our lives. I loved it out there, it was a place that I always felt safe, & felt like those peple that were there before me, ( my dad, Thomas Merton, Jaques), were all there with me. That house was a residence to so many people over the years, & I hope that it made them as happy as it did me!

    Thank you!

    • Katrina says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Amanda.

      More and more I read how great the house was from those who were touched by it, in its extreme simplicity, and how special that we all got to live there.

      More memories are that in the kitchen we had a bookmark of Meher Baba on the wall that said “Don’t worry, be happy”.

      Mrs. Holland stressed how important it was to wash out the empty cans of food that were put in the garbage so we wouldn’t attract pests.

      Datura grew in the back yard.

      At dusk, in the country stillness, I would hear the cries and wails of the Penticostals somewhere off in the near distance.

    • mike Bangs says:

      Dear Amanda,

      I’d love to talk to you. I talked on the phone with your mother once for 2:30 minutes a few years before she died. I told her my story of reading “The Devil Rides Outside” when I was 15. I told her how my heart sank when I read the disclaimer afterward and how my heart sank because I thought it was true. She straightend me out on that. I’m re-reading it for the 4th time now.

      Please reply,

      Mike Bangs

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    When I was born, my parents & siblings were all living in that house, you can imagine, 2 adults & 3 babies literally all in there, but they made it work. When I was 2 months old, my parents rented a house in Ft Worth, which we were in for many years.. I think probably close to 20. My mom stayed there after my father passed away in 1980, for a few years, & then she remarried & they moved into another house in Ft. Worth just the 2 of them. My Sister Susie, as well as I had gotten married, & both of my brothers had moved out on their own, so for me that is the house that I grew up in, but spent lots of time at my Grandmother’s house there in Mansfield, so I remember lots of people living in that little white house.. Many many interesting people!
    Yes my grandmother was adimant about washing out the cans to make sure that it didn’t attract any bugs! She was quite a character, & lived to be almost 100. She was just 7 months prior to turning 100 before she passed away.

  • Katrina says:

    Thanks Amanda. When did your grandmother pass away? And does the property still belong to your family? I tried to find the house on Google Earth, but not knowing the address, it was not possible.
    I’d be so very interested in any photos you could share of the little white house, the land and your grandmother’s house. Are there any pictures of Thomas Merton and Jaques when they lived in that house? I’d be so very grateful to get to see them.
    I remeber, too, Mrs. Holland showing us a published picture book your dad made that had pictures of Thomas Merton, et al, in it. It was a large format book. Is that book with your family, too?
    You can write me privately. Go to my website http://www.katrinasmallstudios.com and you will find a link to my email there.

  • Rich says:

    Hello: Very interesting. However, it is unlikely that Father Louis, (Thomas Merton) ever stayed at John Howard Griffin’s home there in Mansfield. Jacques Maritain could have. JHG spent week’s on end at Merton’s hermitage on Mt. Olivet at Gethsemani in Kentucky in the late 60’s early 70’s. researching a biography that he was to do on Thomas Merton. I cannot recommend JHG’s memoir, “Scattered Shadows”, enough. A truly amazing story.

  • Dwain says:

    I have lived in Mansfield for the last 11 years. Right after I moved there I read Black Like Me. I wondered then where exactly the house was located. Is the house still there? Can you tell me the location? Would just like to drive by and see it. I am a bibliophile and history nut.

  • Katrina says:

    Dwain, it’s been so long ago I couldn’t say. One would hopw it is still there.

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    Dwain,
    The house is still there as far as I know. My 2 brothers were actually still living out there until a yr or so ago, & they sold their acreage that was deeded to them. last time was I was out there the grass was completely overgrown, & you could not even see the house from the road, but it is about 2.2 miles from old downtown Mansfield on the left side. It is a very small little white house, & the side of it is actually facing the road, but you have to go up a long driveway which was red dirt. My grandmother’s house was the main house & that is or was somewhat visible from the road. Like I said all of the property that we all owned has been sold, so they may have torn down both of the houses by now.

  • Dwain says:

    Thanks so much. I am honored that you responded. If you don’t mind, what road and which direction from Mansfield? I assume you are probably referring to old Mansfield Highway which would probably been the main road to Mansfield at the time. Thanks again.

    Dwain

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    Hi Dwain,
    Yes that is it. it you were coming into old Downtown Mansfield from The mansfield Hwy from Ft. Worth, then once you get to the Main Stoplight, you take a right, & it is right at 2.2 miles on the left.

    • Scott says:

      Hi Amanda, this is Scott Losoya, if you remember me from ‘way back when’, there are a few of us from St. A’s who have joined up on facebook. I’ve wondered about you and how you are, a little searching found you on this thread. Hope all is well. If you like you can contact me through my website at Body-Mind-Spirit.com

  • Dwain says:

    Thanks so much. When I get a chance, I’ll see if I can find it.

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    Ok good luck!

  • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

    Hi Scott!
    Of course I remember you.. I remember lots of people from St. A’s.. So great to hear from you.. I did look up your website, & sent you a message.

  • Dwain says:

    Amanda,

    I drove out that way a couple of weeks ago. At exactly 2.2 miles west of Main street I believe I spotted the house on the left (south side) as you described.

    It is easily visible from the road, appears to be in reasonably good condition and is apparently occupied. I hope whoever owns it will respect its place in history and take care of it.

    The main house at the end of the drive appears to be a rather large brick house and appears to be well kept and nice. I don’t know if that was your grandmother’s house or perhaps it has been replaced with a newer home.

    Thanks again for the directions.

    Dwain

    • Amanda Griffin-Fenton says:

      Hi Dwain,
      Sounds like the place. I hope that you are right. Thank you for your interest!

      Amanda

    • Susan Griffin-Campbell says:

      Hi Dwain,

      I am the oldest Griffin child – and apparently my sister hasn’t been out to the old place in a while. What you saw was not the old house – it has been remodeled and no longer looks the same, and the new owners have installed a privacy gate at the road. Our grandmother’s house (Bessie’s house) has been burned to the ground. The brick house – 2-story to the west of the property adjacent to the lane – was actually my old house that I owned with my ex-husband…and sold about 15 years ago. However, the property is almost directly across the road from the paintball park…so you were in the general vicinity.

      Suzy

      • Dwain says:

        Suzy,

        Thank you so much. That is disappointing, but I would still like to see it, if possible.

        Let me make sure I was clear on what you said. The house your parents lived in when your father wrote, Black Like Me, is still standing, but has been remodeled, however your grandmother’s house is no longer there.

        If I’ve gotten that correct, then: Is the house we are talking about on the property immediately west of the lane that leads back to the large brick house (the one I had spoken of previously)? If so, can you see it from the road at all? What does it look like now?

        I know that these are a lot of questions, but I would love to get a picture of it before anymore history is lost to time.

        Once again, I am honored that you took the time to respond.

        Dwain

  • Nicole Lagn Throckmorton says:

    Hello Amanda

    I moved to Mansfield in 1986 and graduate from Mansfield High School in 1995. Mrs. Henson was my 9th grade teacher and we read Black Like Me. Although I enjoyed the book, I never thought to much of the content until I became a teacher myself in a small town. Until recently, this town had few or no black people whatsoever. After watching and listening to students discussions I felt that it was necessary to get them out of their comfort zone. I was always intrigued by the book and decided that it would be great for my kids to read the book; however, I was not prepared for the initial response that I received, but once i provided them with background information and allowed them to ask questions about the history of the civil rights movement they seemed to become more interested. We are just now in the the first part of the novel but they seem to enjoy the story. They are completely amazed by the transformation and bravery that Mr. Griffin demonstrated. I love my students and wanted to expose them to things that they may not usually see or read. This is why it was so important to me for them to read this book. I would love to know if any of your family accepts speaking engagements to discuss the book and the life and times of Mr. Griffin. If so could you please send me the information I am very interested.

    Thank You

  • Nicole Lang Throckmorton says:

    Sorry correction on my name Nicole Lang Throckmorton

  • Cris Slimak says:

    I am working with the Friends of the Mansfield Library. I know the 50th anniversary has passed of your father writing the book. The Friends of the library would like to place a literary plaque on the site that your father wrote Black Like Me. Do you know the address of the property on House Road when your father wrote the book? I drove down the street but there is no way to know which property is could possibly be. I met your mother several years ago when she would come and talk to the English classes after they read Black Like Me. I really enjoyed her! She truly was wonderful! Since we missed the 50th on the writing of the book we thought we could do the dedication on the release of the book. Thank you so very much! Cris Slimak

  • Cris Slimak says:

    Cris Slimak
    I am working with the Friends of the Mansfield Library. I know the 50th anniversary has passed of your father writing the book. The Friends of the library would like to place a literary plaque on the site that your father wrote Black Like Me. Do you know the address of the property on House Road when your father wrote the book? I drove down the street but there is no way to know which property is could possibly be. I met your mother several years ago when she would come and talk to the English classes after they read Black Like Me. I really enjoyed her! She truly was wonderful! Since we missed the 50th on the writing of the book we thought we could do the dedication on the release of the book. Thank you so very much! Cris Slimak

  • Phil Freeman says:

    In regard to a different house we lived in – the cottage in Berkeley, CA that we rented with John and Neela – I have reasons to believe that it was once occupied by roommates Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This needs more research, though, but it was on the same street for sure, at least, and sounds like that place from the description.
    Phil

  • Kary Wind says:

    Fascinating, Kat. Thanks for the link.

  • Kary Wind says:

    I got so intrigued by the story that I forgot I wanted to leave comment about one of the sketches of Phil…the one with his foot in the foreground…love that one.

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