DENVER — Since the 1950s, Paul Stewart brought the old west and the contributions African Americans made to it.
The true pioneer in every sense of the word died at the age of 89 at his home in Aurora on Thursday with his wife, Johnnie “J’Mae” Stewart, by his side.
When he came to Denver, Stewart’s knowledge of blacks in the west had been shaped by his childhood memories. When he was a child, Stewart said he always had to be an Indian when his group of friends played “Cowboys and Indians,” and at the time 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,” Stewart said. “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 his story, and he did that, in part, by documenting history.
When older members of the black community began bringing Stewart western items from their basements, which used to belong to relatives who had 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, Stewart’s 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,” Stewart said.
A massive community effort allowed that to happen and the rest is history. The museum, dubbed the Black American West Museum, was moved to Downing and California, at the end of the Welton Street light rail, where it remains.
Stewart continued to present lectures from time to time after the museum was founded, and schools still send students to visit that museum. But the one thing that always seemed to trouble Stewart was that more visitors of his visitors came from Europe and the Far East than came 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,” Stewart said. “If more Americans knew the truth about blacks and the west they would have a better understanding about us all being very much alike.”
Leaving our interview with him in February 2013 with “cowboy handshake,” Stewart explained where he thought 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,” Stewart said. “So boy get the cows soon turned into hey cowboy get the cattle in the barn.”
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 — the same place Paul Stewart’s spirit will live on.