The Tip Top Café was more than a restaurant that offered delicious food; it was the hub for anyone who wished to stay informed on events and news relevant to Galveston’s African American community. The café’s owner, Courtney Bernard Murray, was born in Grand Cane, Louisiana, in 1902 and moved to Galveston with his parents, Judge and Tempie Murray, when he was three years old. By 1920, Murray had entered the workforce as a driver for a local clothing store. He married Sadie Jackson of Wharton, Texas, and their first child, Courtney, Jr., was born in Wharton in 1935. The household also included Sadie’s three children from a previous marriage: Rufus, Jennie, and Stella. To support the family, Murray worked as a salesman and Sadie as a housekeeper. After they moved to Galveston, their daughter, Delores, was born in 1936.
Sometime around 1939, Murray purchased the building at 2627 Church Street and opened a twenty-four-hour restaurant called the Tip Top Café. Not a trained cook and with little experience in the restaurant business, Murray hired a full-time staff to manage the restaurant while he focused on his role as manager, bookkeeper, and official greeter. Under the same roof but separated from the restaurant, Murray also operated The Tap Room, where alcoholic beverages were sold among the pinball and slot machines, commonly referred to as “one-armed bandits.” On weekends, Murray brought in a band to entertain Tip Top’s clientele.
The Tip Top Café became a well-known restaurant and popular hangout but Murray wore many other hats. He used the café as a point of contact and was very active in the community through his support of multiple organizations that included the Galveston Negro Chamber of Commerce, the Gibson Branch of the YMCA, and other non-profit service organizations. At the café, Murray sold tickets to various events held in Galveston, including all Central High School sports events, fundraisers for local organizations, and city-wide events held at Galveston’s City Auditorium, located behind City Hall. The Tip Top was also a City of Galveston Poll Tax station, a prerequisite to vote or register to vote for a number of states until 1966. Implemented during the Jim Crow Era, the tax of $1-$1.50 was an expense most African Americans could not afford and was an attempt to keep African Americans from exercising their right to vote. Murray volunteered as a Galveston County Voter Registrar Deputy and several nights a week he was available until midnight to accept payments and register citizens so they would be eligible to vote. During World War II, Murray also provided free entertainment for the soldiers stationed at Camp Wallace in Galveston, Texas, and discounted their meals when they visited the café.
Beginning in the 1940s and lasting throughout the 1960s, Murray brought the top African American talent of the era to town to perform at the City Auditorium. Because of his promotional efforts, Galvestonians had an opportunity to see Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstein, Sara Vaughn, Joe Turner, Peg Leg Bates, Bill “Bojanagle” Robinson, Etta James, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and his Cotton Club Orchestra, Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra, Charles Brown, Earl “Father” Hines, Victor Hugo Greene, Roy Milton, and His Soul Senders, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and the international all-girl orchestra, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, just to name a few. Archived Galveston Daily News articles indicate Murray had a well-known artist in Galveston at least two or three times a month and some of them returned to perform in Galveston multiple times. During the 1940s tickets to Murray’s shows cost eighty cents to $1.00 and increased to $2.00 over a twenty-year span. Tickets could be purchased at the Tip Top Café, the City Auditorium, and a few other select businesses. Murray included the following statement on all of his advertisements, “Section Reserved for Whites,” as white promoters who brought white talent to Galveston had a similar statement in their ads for Negroes. After the shows, the performers dined at the Tip Top Café. Past employees recall serving many entertainers and noted that with celebrities in the cafe, the fun often lasted until sun-up the next morning.
In the later 1960s, the City of Galveston implemented eminent domain on Murray’s property and as a result, The Tip Top Café closed. With the café gone, Murray stopped bringing entertainers in for the community but he remained active, however, and served on many committees while he continued to support non-profit service organizations. After he retired, Murray devoted more time to his church, the historic Avenue L Baptist Church, where he served as Deacon and chaired the finance committee. Murray also served as an alternate election judge for many years, volunteered for the census counts, and always made himself available to speak with groups concerned with local, state, and national issues. At age 82, he accepted a part-time job with the Job Corps at Texas Employment Commission to assist young people with vocational training. When asked why he was still working, he replied: “I just like helping young people.”
On November 23, 1988, Courtney Murray was presented with the Humanitarian Award from Texas Governor William P. Clements, Jr. for his accomplishments, general contributions to the community, and support of the military. The award cited his work in the Job Corp program and recognized his contributions during World War II. Murray passed away on May 26, 2001, at the age of 99. He is buried in Hitchcock, Texas, at Mainland Memorial Cemetery.
Shared from Galveston Historical Society