James C. Thibodeaux, African-American artist, photographer, and actor, son of Ernest Charles Thibodeaux, Sr., and Fannie E. (Young) Thibodeaux, was born on July 21, 1911, in the parish of St. Martinville, Louisiana, “a picturesque town in Cajun country.” James was the eldest of at least four children. His mother died when he was a child. By 1920 the family had moved to Dallas, Texas.
James’s father was a graduate of Strait University (which later became Dillard University) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Charles worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas in the dual role of head custodian and French translator. The Thibodeaux family lived in the area now known as State–Thomas or Uptown, which at that time comprised a large community of blacks in North Dallas. In his mid-eighties, James Thibodeaux fondly recalled his boyhood in Dallas in the 1920s for Jay Brakefield, a Dallas Morning News writer, who wrote:
James Thibodeaux has vivid memories of his boyhood, of food vendors
who roamed the neighborhood and the business district along nearby Central
Avenue, or Central Track. One would sing as he approached: “Hey, all you
little children, playing in the sand, go tell your mama it’s the hot dog man!”
Mr. Thibodeaux’s father told him to stay away from the barbershop where blues
musician Blind Lemon Jefferson might be found singing risque songs. Mr.
Thibodeaux remembers running a little soft-drink stand on Commerce Street
and seeing the blind singer and guitarist go by, accompanied by a younger
musician named Josh White.
Charles Thibodeaux enrolled James in a Catholic school, the Sisters’ Institute (later known as St. Peter’s Academy). In 1928 James graduated at the age of seventeen. He had been encouraged by Sister Michael, his art teacher, to further develop his artistic skills. Southern Methodist University did not accept African-American students at that time, so James’s father, Charles, sent him to New York City in 1929 to attend Cooper Union, where he was given a full-tuition scholarship. The Cooper Union School was full of third-year students getting ready for graduation, so Thibodeaux and several other freshmen were sent to the Mechanic’s Institute, a sister institution. James earned his diploma in freehand drawing in April 1932 from the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Thibodeaux lived at the Harlem YMCA and had found a job as a studio page at independent radio station WOR soon after he arrived in New York. As writer Peggy Wolfe wrote in an article in the Dallas Examiner: “As an African-American artist living in Harlem in the 1930s, James Thibodeaux was certainly in the right place at the right time. Introduced to the Cooper Union School by Augusta Savage and mentored by Bernie Hayes Robynson, he also made powerful friends that could help him in a serious art career.” Thibodeaux was perfectly positioned to participate in the Harlem Renaissance. He and a friend once rode bicycles from New York to Chicago.
Thibodeaux continued to work at WOR (which converted to a television station), except for his service in the United States Army during World War II, until he retired forty-seven years later in 1977, as television operations supervisor. During Thibodeaux’s long career in radio and television, he also pursued artistic endeavors in art, photography, history, and acting. His work was exhibited at Eva Jessye’s studio, Countee Cullen Library, the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also had an exhibition of his drawings and paintings at the studio and gallery of New York illustrator Tom Feeling. The exhibition included works in the media of charcoal, sanguine, pastel, and oil. In 1936 some of Thibodeaux’s paintings were displayed at the Texas Centennial in the Hall of Negro Life in Dallas’s Fair Park.
While still living in Dallas, James Thibodeaux had starred in Paul Green’s play No ’Count Boy, in Dallas’s first black little theater group, the Dallas Negro Players. Later, in New York, the lead actor in the same play dropped out, and Thibodeaux got to reprise the role with the Harlem Experimental Players.
Thibodeaux was drafted into the military in New York on July 10, 1943. He served as the U.S. Army’s first African-American artistic instructor in the army’s special services. His enlistment records show that he was married at the time of enlistment. His wife, Marie, at forty years of age, died of a hemorrhage in July 1951. After a funeral Mass in New York, James had her body flown to Oklahoma for burial in Beggs, Oklahoma.
James Thibodeaux mentored many young artists through the Police Athletic League, the Children’s Aid Society, and the New York City YMCA. Thibodeaux also “mentored older, lesser-known African-American artists by organizing exhibitions and documenting their work in text and photographs.” He taught art classes at the Harlem Boys Club and painted every day.
In about 1980 Thibodeaux moved back to Dallas. He lived in a house that had been his father’s in the Queen City neighborhood. On September 19, 1981, James married Loretta Pipkin, who was twenty-eight years his junior.
For almost a quarter century Thibodeaux lived in Dallas and continued to paint and take photographs. In 1981 some of his paintings were exhibited in a show that was sponsored by the Southwest Black Artists Guild at Dallas’s Martin Luther King Community Center. A local art critic said that Thibodeaux’s paintings were the most refreshing works of art in the show. In 1991 he was honored as a Dallas Black Living Legend by the Junior Black Academy. By the age of ninety-one, he was Dallas’s oldest living African-American artist.
James and Loretta Thibodeaux were divorced in Dallas on July 9, 2004. He died in New Orleans on August 19, 2004. Frank Frazier of the Southwest Black Artists Guild once said of Thibodeaux, “He’s a peaceful man and not into any of the radical movements, but he’s a Black man and inside he knows the struggle quite well.”