As Kilgore Intermediate School fifth grade teacher John Bryant went through multiple famous black men and women during the school’s Black History Month program, students recognized names such as Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Gabby Douglas, Shani Davis and Sidney Poitier.
One name they did not recognize was Monnie R. “Buddy” Bryant. He was a combat veteran who served in Germany and France during WWII and became the first African-American police officer in Kilgore. He is also Bryant’s father.
When students learn about famous African-Americans in history, KIS Principal Kim Slayter said, it can seem the people and the events are from times and places far away from Kilgore, Texas in 2018.
In 1955 – only 63 years ago – Buddy Bryant became the first black police officer in Kilgore along with his first partner, Leonard Cantley. The pair patrolled in Kilgore and went into Longview when requested, Bryant said, noting the situation was more contentious in Longview.
“My father always told me that the transition in Kilgore went a lot smoother than the transition did in Longview. Longview had riots and they had to call the police to come help when they integrated, and Kilgore went a lot smoother,” Bryant said.
Teacher Bryant started school in Kilgore, attending the segregated Elder Elementary School for Kindergarten. Then, when he was in first grade, the district integrated.
“That was the first time the black kids and white kids had gone to school together in Kilgore,” he said, noting five or seven of his first grade classmates are still among his friends.
The elder Bryant joined his long-time KPD partner David “Dump” Pentecost, leading to their nickname of “the team of Buddy and Dump.” As they served Kilgore, Bryant said, they could not arrest a white person they had pulled over even though they were police officers, just like their white counterparts. Instead, they had to just detain the person after pulling them over and wait until a white officer could come and make the arrest.
“That was just the time that they were going through then,” Bryant said.
On Saturdays, Bryant remembered, his family would sometimes go to Longview to shop, and while his mother and sisters would go to the stores, he and his dad would go get a drink and a hot dog from a local lunch counter.
“That was our big thing.”
What Bryant did not realize at the time was the significance of being able to sit at the lunch counter and eat lunch with his dad.
In 2005, Bryant received a book titled “Freedom on the Menu” about the historic sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
The book, he said, tells the story of a little girl who watched the white children eat at the lunch counter, while her family was always made to be in the back.
The sit-ins changed the laws, making sure the black children and adults who sat at the lunch counters would be served too.
The book includes details of the girl’s order when she and her family finally got to sit at the lunch counter: three hot dogs, three french fries, two coffees and one Coke.
“It was really that day in 2005 before I really realized the importance of my father taking me to the lunch counter because when he would take me, that was a the end of the ’60s, first part of the ’70s, and it was just the beginning of the time where he could actually sit at that lunch counter,” Bryant said. “When I was little, I never thought about that. I was eating a hot dog with my dad.”
Bryant reminded the students, “Remember what you do now and what happens today are part of your history.”