John Payton was born into a Texas home during a time when the country was still operating under the “separate but equal” fallacy.
“We were too poor to have a bunch of kids,” Payton recalls of the small family he had growing up in Livingston – two sisters, now deceased, and one brother. “We couldn’t feed any more mouths than that.”
But being on the lowest possible end of the tax bracket was inspiration for young Payton, he said, since he knew this life held more for him than bread and water alone.
“That’s a lot of the reason I wanted to go to school like I did,” he said. Although school in those days, Payton remembered, wasn’t near what it is now.
“I never did go to school with the other race. We were always separate; separate at church, the store, school. There wasn’t any mingling or anything like that.”
Fraternization among the races was still frowned upon when Payton graduated from Livingston’s Dunbar High School as a star in Texas High School football. He accepted a full-ride scholarship to the only Texas college black students were allowed to attend in the 1950s, Prairie View A&M University.
“You either went there or you left the state,” Payton said of his choice in secondary education. He made the best of his time at Prairie View, however, and excelled in his chosen sport of football. At the same time, Payton took advantage of the scholastic offerings and earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision and a bachelor’s degree in physical education while playing for the team. Payton’s skill on the field was awarded when he was signed under the NFL draft to fill out the Chicago Bears’ roster straight out of college under Coach George “Papa Bear” Hallas.
Tragedy struck before he could before he could make the move north. In his final game as a college player, Payton suffered an injury to his leg that ended all hopes of a career in professional football.
“When I got hurt, I knew I’d never play for the Bears,” Payton said. He quietly, and quickly, moved on to Plan B. “That’s when I decided to coach.”
Woodville, a little community in the rural south, was what drew Payton to his first teaching job. At Woodville’s Scott High School, Payton took on the role of head football and basketball coach, although in 1956 when he started, his students were all black. A one-race class was again what Payton entered into when he made to the move to Beaumont in 1958 at the city’s black Dunbar Junior High School and Charlton Pollard High School. Integration was just starting to gain momentum, Payton recalls, when he made the move to Lamar University as the school's first black assistant coach under athletic director J.B. Higgins. He still coaches there more than 40 years later.
“Integration was accepted because you could tell that was the way things were going,” Payton said of the early days of inter-mingling. Still, the unity of desegregation was clouded by years of repression, he said. “There’s probably always hard feelings when you feel you have suffered so much and you can’t just forget it like it never happened. Me, mainly I was thankful for all the people who had helped us along the way. With all that considered, you had to be happy about it.”
But for Payton, there is still a long way to go on the road to equality.
“I’m proud, not that we had to struggle, but that we overcame it,” Payton said. “I’m happy to have gone through integration, and to have been one of the ones to actually make it through it. But I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where everything is equal until we can get to the point where race doesn’t matter at all. When that will be? I have no idea. But God does. Hopefully, it will be in my lifetime.”
Longtime friend and fan Johnny Walker spoke about Payton at length when he was up for a hometown honor.
“Throughout his life, John worked hard and diligently to be the best at whatever lay in front of him,” Walker said. “But knowing him like I do today, it’s certainly no surprise that he put that adversity behind him and went on to become one of the most respected coaches in Texas sports history.”
Among the accolades afforded Payton over the years, he was inducted into the African American Hall of Fame in Dallas, the Lamar Cardinal Hall of Honor, the Texas Coaches Association Hall of Honor, the Prairie View Hall of Fame, the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Livingston Dunbar Hall of Fame. He was also awarded merits from the Tyler County Heritage Society, named the Coach of the Year by Texas Southern University, named Coach of the Year by the regional UIL, and his works were published multiple times in The Texas Coach.
A few of Payton’s civic duties over the years have included officiating games throughout Beaumont; participating as a member in the YMBL, the Lamar University Diversity Committee and Kappa Alpha Psi; and guest speaking throughout the community, He and his wife, Dolly, are members of the Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church in Beaumont and have raised two children in Beaumont pubic schools – son Gehrig Payton and daughter Janice Payton Meeks.