The black-and-white wedding photos. The framed Naval Air Station commendation. And the tattered indigo yearbook, stamped with the gold letters “Tenth Cavalry,” more precious to its owner than just about anything.
A simple memorial service for the late James Givens on Thursday offered relatives and friends at his home at Immanuel Village a window into history.
Of Pine Bluff, Ark., where Givens was born in 1918.
Of the Jim Crow South, from which Givens had fled as a teenager, riding the rails Woody Guthrie-style to find work that paid more than his nickel-a-day's wages as a golf caddy.
Of a New Deal program that rescued Givens from a life of picking cotton and took him to California.
Of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black horse-mounted cavalry regiment that Givens served as an Army private patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border during World War II.
Of Oakland, Calif., which became his longtime home; a city where he met his love, Mary, listened to Rat Pack record albums and took many an ocean cruise.
“He came from a time when it was doers,” his nephew Mitchell Pinkard told more than 50 people at the service. “Sink or swim. Make your way.”
And Givens, by all accounts, did just that.
Born the eldest of seven children, Givens was a hard worker who was thrilled with his meager caddy's wages. But he looked around at the tough life of sharecroppers and domestic workers and decided he wanted something different.
“Everyone was picking cotton,” Givens would later tell his nephew. “Cotton, cotton, cotton.”
At 14, Givens left home and hopped trains, said his sister Mildred Lee of Omaha. He picked up whatever jobs he could in the South. There weren't many.
He saw opportunity in President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and joined at 17.
The program was aimed at young out-of-work men. The jobs provided manual labor on government-owned land. In exchange, they got lodging and meals and $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home.
Givens was sent to California's Bay Area, where he did forestry and construction work at Muir Woods and around the Golden Gate Bridge.
He then joined the still-segregated U.S. Army in 1941, becoming part of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers — the all-black 9th and 10th cavalry regiments that were formed in 1866.
Givens trained in Kansas at Camp Funston. His yearbook from that time includes a memo from the commander, Lt. Col. Paul Davison, who salutes the new young recruits: “And to the finest regiment in the Army, The Tenth Cavalry — The Wild Buffalos.”
Givens served for two years, guarding the southern U.S. border, and he was honorably discharged in 1943 at a California hospital. He had fallen from a horse and injured his hip. The cavalry regiments were deactivated a year later, marking the end of an era.
Givens spent the next 34 years working at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., in aircraft parts and procurement.
He married in the early 1950s, and he and his wife, Mary, had no children of their own.
By that time, Givens' sister had moved with her husband to Omaha. Mildred Lee raised four children, including Nebraska football defensive lineman Oudious Lee and Deborah Lee, who married Pinkard.
Deborah and Pinkard lived for years in Southern California and grew close to “Uncle Jim” Givens.
Deborah Lee Pinkard returned to Omaha about 12 years ago and is an attorney with the Douglas County Public Defender's Office.
Her husband split his time between Omaha and California, where he worked for mortgage giant GMAC.
Givens began to slow down. At 90, he jogged and could still dance the Twist. At 91, he had stopped driving. And his sister and nephew decided it was time for him to come to Omaha.
Three years ago Givens moved to Immanuel Village, where he lived independently.
He died Sept. 15 after a fall.
Pinkard flew his uncle's remains home to Oakland last week, where a ceremony was held.
On Thursday, Pinkard spoke to Immanuel Village residents and family members.
Givens, he said, was disciplined. He was caring. He liked his scotch with milk and his Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley. He punctuated big moments with an enthusiastic, “Oh, boy!”
Pinkard described a man who “could turn a negative into a positive,” a man who was a hard worker and a good dancer, a man whose life spanned a remarkable century. A century book-ended by racial segregation and the nation's first black president.
“This was a guy,” Pinkard said, “who made his own life.”
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