The Black American West Museum boasts more than 35,000 artifacts.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, the West loomed larger than ever as a land of opportunity for Americans, many of whom were black. Abolition and the end of the Civil War hadn’t put an end to racial persecution, of course, and blacks fled the South in droves during Reconstruction, hoping to find true freedom on the frontier. Exactly how many black men and women filed homestead claims is uncertain, but by 1900 Oklahoma had more than 6,000 black-owned farms, and Kansas nearly 2,000. Some black homesteaders ventured as far west as Colorado, making one of the last attempts at agricultural colonization on the high Plains, at Dearfield in 1910.
The homestead exhibit at Denver’s Black American West Museum centers on Dearfield, a pioneer farming town founded by Oliver Toussaint Jackson and inspired by the principles of Booker T. Washington. Just east of Greeley, Colo., Dearfield claimed some 700 black residents at its peak in 1921, but many of them moved to Denver and other cities when drought, dust storms and the Depression hit in the 1930s. By the end of World War II, Jackson and his niece were Dearfield’s only remaining residents. The museum owns many of the lots in what today is a ghost town, and Jackson’s homemade saddle is on display at the museum.
Blacks didn’t just head west to homestead, of course. Black cowboys were far from a rarity in the Old West, not to mention black mountain men, miners, ranchers, soldiers, schoolteachers, seamstresses, laundresses, lawyers and doctors. The museum celebrates all such black pioneers who contributed to the taming of the West. While most didn’t make their way into the history books, a few names remain well remembered, including mountain man James P. Beckwourth, who lived among the Indians; rancher and sometime outlaw Isom Dart; Bose Ikard, the loyal trail rider for Charles Goodnight; Bill Pickett, the rodeo cowboy who invented bulldogging; “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, who rode shotgun and wasn’t afraid to use her fists; Clara Brown, a pioneer businesswoman known as “Aunt Clara”; and Cathay Williams, who, using the name William Cathey, became the only known female buffalo soldier. The museum building itself is the former home of Dr. Justina Ford (1871–1952), the first black female doctor in Colorado.
The founder of the Black American West Museum is Paul W. Stewart, who as a child was told that there was no such thing as a black cowboy. Stewart became a Navy seaman and then a barber and began learning and collecting everything he could on blacks in the West. “It became a sort of mission,” he says. Stewart traveled throughout the West collecting artifacts and oral histories. In time his collection, at first displayed in his barbershop, needed a larger space. In 1971 he leased a historic saloon building in downtown Denver and put his collection on public display. A decade later when the city instituted an urban renewal plan calling for the demolition of several landmark buildings to make way for parking garages and other modern structures, Stewart was forced to find a new home.
“Lady Doctor” Ford’s two-story brick home on Arapahoe Street also nearly fell victim to urban renewal, until Stewart stepped in. In 1984, with a $40,000 loan from Historic Denver, he moved the house a few blocks to its present location (3091 California St.) in the heart of Five Points, Denver’s first black community. Stewart held the grand opening on September 24, 1988.
Today the Black American West Museum houses more than 35,000 artifacts and stands as one of the most comprehensive collections of historical material on blacks in the West. A few objects, such as Beckwourth’s handmade moccasins, are encased. But most items are displayed openly, enabling museumgoers to actually touch them. Visitors will find a vast array of cowboy gear, including saddles, rifles, pistols, branding irons and clothing. Other displays highlight the buffalo soldiers and other blacks who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish American War and the two world wars. And don’t miss the collection of medical equipment that belonged to Dr. Ford, who received her Colorado medical license on October 7, 1902, and would go on to deliver, by her own estimate, more than 7,000 babies of varied ethnic backgrounds from all walks of life.
Call 303-292-2566 or visit www.black americanwestmuseum.com.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.