Houston 101: The Assassination of O.P. Dewalt, Black Leader and Lincoln Theatre Manager
On this date in 1931, Olen P. Dewalt was gunned down in the Lincoln Theatre, the city's first black-run movie palace. Dewalt, a leader in the Independence Heights community and a charter member of the local chapter of the NAACP, was the theater's manager and had his real estate office upstairs.
Some say Dewalt was killed for speaking out against the Klan, which was then resurgent across America.
Speaking to Elma Barrera in the Houston Public Library's 2007 Houston Oral History Project, then-102-year-old Hazel Haynesworth Young gave a different account of Dewalt's slaying.
Young told Barrera Dewalt was killed because he had the nerve to bring the 1929 King Vidor epic Hallelujah to town. Featuring a score by Irving Berlin, Vidor intended the film to portray blacks far more sympathetically and realistically than ever before.
According to Young, bringing the movie to Houston spelled doom for Dewalt.
"He brought it in defiance of the white people who were supposed to see pictures first," Young recalled. "And they had somebody kill Mr. O.P. DeWalt."
Young said Dewalt's slaying was "a bad hurt" for the whole community.
"Yes, everybody hated that," Young went on. "Everybody knew what was going on. To kill O.P., they were all [garbled] like coming and shooting down somebody in your family."
In Depression Era Houston, the Lincoln was the one place downtown where blacks could relax in ritzy surroundings and not have to accept second-class treatment, as in the white-run theaters, where they were forced to sit in the balcony if they were admitted at all. The Lincoln also hosted soirees put on by black fraternal organizations. Young remembered that Dewalt also rented out the theater for private screenings.
"[E]verybody admired Mr. DeWalt because he had a theater that was nice you could go in and sometimes after hours, you could have a party, invite your friends and everybody would come to see that person with you," Young reminisced. "And you would be dressed all up in your evening clothes and go in and see a picture that only your guests would be invited to. That was supposed to be a socialite affair. Mr. DeWalt was a nice person. I can remember him and his wife, and their home was such a nice home. We had our own social life as black people..."
In the video below, Dewalt's son Olen Dewalt Jr. remembers his dad's dogged persistence in getting the job as manager. The theater doubled as a live venue. Legendary DJ/music man Skipper Lee Frazier recalls seeing live performances there by comedians Redd Foxx and Pigmeat Markham. The younger Dewalt also recalled Appreciation Days, in which kids were admitted free while adults paid the customary nickel.
The Lincoln opened in 1916 and stood at the corner of Milam and Prairie. Dewalt's widow managed it after his death for a time. In 1977, the Lincoln was demolished and its former site is now a Houston Chronicle parking lot.
In addition to running the Lincoln, Dewalt, a native of Livingston and a Prairie View A&M graduate, served for a time as the principal of the Independence Heights school.
"He had a deep vision," his son said. "I'm not bragging on him 'cause he was my daddy. He had a deep vision."
No arrest was ever made in connection with Dewalt's murder. He was 45 or 46 when he was killed.
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