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  • Writer's pictureGreg

Small Town Hero, Texas Legend

My dad was born a city boy in Houston, Texas, in 1937. When he was around nine, my grandfather closed his Houston restaurant and purchased a café on the courthouse square in Livingston, Texas, population 2,800, and the family moved.

County courthouse
Polk County Courthouse by Jim Evans

Dad took to country life, and as a high school freshman he joined Future Farmers of America. The chapter’s Pig Circle obliged sophomores to give an incoming freshman a free piglet. When it was Dad’s turn, his sponsoring sophomore gave him not one animal, but a sow and thirteen piglets! When Dad sold out as a senior, he had enough to pay for much of an education at Texas A&M University. Although Dad’s hogs invariably ended up as bacon, he cared for them deeply, especially his first love, Josephine, a 300-pound Red Duroc.

When Dad wasn’t tending his pigs, he worked in his father’s café. Livingston was booming in those postwar days, and people had money to spend. My grandfather—we called him Pa—had the only banquet room in town, and he’d host the Lions one day and the Rotarians the next. Buford Café’s lunchtime steam table typically included stewed okra, green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, leafy greens of some sort, as well as roast beef, chicken fried steak and fried chicken. In the evening, Pa cut enormous steaks from a tight side of beef for the men working on the nearby pipeline.

On Saturday afternoons, the school bus deposited outlying families on the courthouse square with the driver’s admonition to meet at Buford’s by midnight for the ride home. The women went shopping, while the men lounged around the courthouse smoking and chewing tobacco. Lucky kids went to the Fain Theater about a block away from the café to watch the midnight movie, meaning the movie had to end by midnight because the Baptists wouldn’t countenance movies showing on Sunday. These were all white folks, of course; black folks were pointedly not invited.

Historic movie theater
The Fain by Jim Evans

By ’55, Buford’s Café had seen its better days. Unprecedented economic growth brought newer restaurants with air-conditioning, competing banquet rooms and a sea of parking for the shiny new cars that became the most iconic symbol of America’s postwar boom. The school bus no longer delivered customers to Pa’s front door, and his café became a dinosaur almost overnight.

“Daddy worked every day but Christmas,” Dad says, but by ’58, Buford’s Café was no more. Pa became a traveling salesman.

Historic cafe
Courthouse Whistle Stop Cafe by Billy Hathorn

Last September, Dad and I drove from Austin to Nacogdoches to visit my aunt Helen. When I suggested we take a slightly longer route via Livingston and stop at the old café, Dad was happy to do it. The place is still there, albeit under a new name (pictured). It’s now fully air-conditioned and racially integrated, and there’s no steam table in sight.

“Over there we had the buffet, and the ceilings were higher,” Dad said as we split a veggie plate and a single chicken-fried steak. “That’s where the kitchen used to be. By the way, did I ever tell you about Big Jim?” 

Of course, he had. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.

A historic high school
Livingston Dunbar High School

Dad explained he was in middle school when he started working in Pa’s café. Big Jim worked in the kitchen, and he took a real shine to young Ronnie Buford. “He was always looking out for me and encouraging me.” Big Jim was the star of the football team at the Negro high school. “He’d work all day and leave in the afternoon to go to football practice. I’m not sure how he went to classes.” Dad told me his father was often verbally abusive of his colored staff, and, on at least one occasion, shoved Big Jim out the back door of the building. “Things were different in those days,” Dad said.

Indeed. This was a good decade before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public places, and, while Big Jim could work behind the scenes in Pa’s café, African Americans were not welcome in the dining room. Dad recalled a young woman once opened the door of the café and explained that she had a car full of hungry children and asked if she could get take-out. Pa marched across the room with his fists balled, cursing up a storm, and ran her off.

“That sort of thing caused a real rift between me and my dad,” Dad said.

“Any idea where Big Jim is now?” I asked. Dad shook his head.

We finished our lunch and got back on the road with Dad driving. “Yeah, I always wondered what happened to Big Jim,” he said. “I guess it’d be impossible to find out.”

I whipped out my phone/supercomputer. “Let’s see.” Dad didn’t remember Jim’s last name. “What was the name of the Negro high school?” I asked.

“Dunbar,” Dad said, “I remember that well.” Though blacks were not allowed to attend the football games of the white school, Dad and his friend Roy Johnson sometimes sneaked out on weeknights to watch the Negro games. “Daddy would’ve killed us if he’d found out.”

A man giving a speech.
James Lewis "Big Jim" Dewalt

After a few seconds of searching, I learned that James Lewis “Big Jim” Dewalt is no less than a Texas legend. He wasn’t a student at Livingston Dunbar High School when Dad knew him, he was coach, and he led the Dunbar Leopards to five state final appearances and state championships in 1953, 1954 and again in 1958, the year Pa’s café closed. Upon racial integration in the late 60’s, Dunbar High School closed and Dewalt coached and taught science at Livingston High School, where the fieldhouse now bears his name.

In 1986, while attending a ceremony inaugurating a restoration effort of shuttered Dunbar High, DeWalt told the Polk County Enterprise, “[Coaching] was a fascinating career for me, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

“Gosh, I guess I didn’t really know anything about Big Jim,” Dad said.

For more on the history of black high school football in Texas, check out Michael Hurd’s book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas.

A football team
Livingston Dunbar 1958 State Champions (Dewalt, top left)

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