Black American West Museum

Denver’s Black American West Museum

The Black American West Museum in Denver is unique. It shows the many roles African-Americans played in the Old West. Their motto is: ‘We tell it like it was’

When Mel Brooks released his movie Blazing Saddles, the notion of a black cowboy in the Old West was a joke. In fact, as many as one-third of cowboys were black, yet their faces were hardly ever seen in Westerns. Their numerous stories are now told in the Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado.

Denver barber Paul Stewart started the museum in 1971. He’d been told as a child in Clinton, Iowa that he always had to play the Indian because there were no black cowboys. When he grew up, he heard about black cowboys from his customers, and he was determined to find out the truth.

What began as a curiosity soon became a quest. Stewart bought a tape recorder and set about tracking down the material. He recorded oral histories and interviewed the last of the living black cowboys. People gave him things – from boots, guns, and saddles to uniforms and priceless photographs. By the late 1960s, he had amassed a remarkable collection of items used by black pioneers in the West.

At first, he displayed his treasures in his barbershop. But as his collection grew, he wanted to share the story with a wider audience, and it became the basis of the Black American West Museum. The Smithsonian calls it “one of the greatest exhibits of Black history in the West.”

The museum is housed in the former home of Justina Ford, the first licensed black woman doctor in Colorado. She practiced here from 1902-1952, and many of the 7,000 babies she delivered were born here. A replica of her examining room and some of her original medical supplies are on display.

The star attraction is the cowboy gallery, where you can learn about such Wild West heroes as Deadwood Dick, frontier scout James Beckwourth, and rodeo rider Bill Pickett, inventor of ‘bull-dogging’.

The so-called Hollywood Hop – a classic scene in the old Westerns – was originated by a black cowboy, James Arthur Walker. He would ride his horse at top speed, jump to the ground, then hop back up on his horse while it was still running. He died in Denver in the late 1940s.

Another room is devoted to the all-black army regiments that patrolled the Western frontier. The Native Americans held them in great respect and called them ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ because the dust and sweat of their brows caused their hair to the mat like that of a buffalo.

Other rooms in the museum portray the many contributions of African Americans in the building of the American West, from gold miners to homesteaders. In the early 20th century, there were thriving all-black townships like Dearfield, on the prairie east of Denver. These stories bring a new perspective to life on the frontier.

After a visit here, you’ll watch those Western movies in a new light. Forget Blazing Saddles and think of Buffalo Soldiers. Leave John Wayne and Clint Eastwood on the silver screen, and step back into the real old West at Denver’s Black American West Museum & Heritage Center.

Planning Your Visit:

Black American West Museum & Heritage Center, 3091 California St., Denver 80205.

Tel: (303) 292-2566

Website: www.blackamericanwestmuseum.com

Open Wed-Fri 10am-2pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mon-Tues.