DENVER — Paul Stewart has been teaching people about contributions African Americans made to the old west since the 1950s.
When he came to Denver his knowledge of Blacks in the west had been shaped by his childhood memories. When we were kids I always had to be an Indian when we played ‘cowboys and Indians’ and he says he never could understand why.
“When it was my turn to be a cowboy my friends would say, everybody knows there’s no such thing as a Black cowboy,” said Stewart. “So I just thought that was the way things were out west. It wasn’t until I came to Denver as an adult that I came face to face with a real-life Black cowboy.”
That happened while walking thru downtown with his cousin, a long-time State Legislator, who told him about ranchers and farmers of color who lived all over the west. The sighting inspired Paul to change history, which if you look at the spelling is his-story, which many say how history is recorded. People telling the story and writing the books give their perspective and without regard to anyone else.
When older members of the Black community began bringing Stewart western items from their basements, which used to belong to relatives passed on, his barber shop began to look like a museum. People would pass by just to see the crumpled boots, the worn chaps and old cowboy hats. By the 70’s, Pauls collection had grown too big for the shop, so he began working on getting a place to show off his evidence that Blacks were in the old west.
“When I heard they were going to tear down the house which was owned by Dr. Justina Ford–a Black doctor who delivered thousands babies in Denver–I knew that would be a perfect fit for all the memorabilia I had collected,” said Stewart.
A massive community effort allowed that to happen and the rest is his-story. The museum was moved to Downing and California, at the end of the Welton Street light rail, where it remains a wonderful day trip from the suburbs.
Paul still presents lectures from time to time, and schools still send students to visit the museum, but one thing that troubles Paul is the fact that more visitors to his tribute to the old west come from Europe and the Far East than come from Colorado.
“It seems people from out the USA are more interested in the truth about the old west than Americans are, and that is so troubling,” says Stewart. “If more Americans knew the truth about Black and the west they would have a better understanding about us all being very much alike.”
As he left us with a ‘cowboy handshake’ Paul told us where he thinks the term cowboy came from.
“Because Blacks were always called boy, when Whites would ask slaves to get the horses or get the mules or round up the cows… the term boy was always attached to the order… so boy get the cows soon turned into hey cowboy get the cattle in the barn, his take is no Whites were ever called boy!
From Black miners to railroad workers to the Buffalo Soldiers, their worth in the west is on display at the BAW Museum right here in Denver.