This article was published in the Denver Urban Spectrum in the June 2010 issue. Below we have republished the article in honor and memory of Paul Wilbur Stewart, Sr., one Colorado’s longtime historian and very own cowboy.
As an expert on Black history, Paul Stewart has lectured at colleges and universities, written books, appeared in documentaries, and been interviewed by everybody from the BBC to the Today Show.
But to the thousands of people who meet him, Paul is just the smiling man in the cowboy hat, with a grin from here to Kansas, sticking out his hand with a big, “Howdy! Give me the cowboy handshake!”
It was Bill Bailey, a 6-foot-6-inch cowboy from South Dakota, who first taught Paul that handshake. “When Black cowboys met out on the plains, they didn’t know if someone was going to hit them or shake hands, so they developed their own handshake,” Paul explains.
That ritual, like much of African American history in the West, would have long ago disappeared if it was not for Paul Stewart. What started as a hobby for him almost 50 years ago has evolved into a serious collection that Smithsonian Magazine calls “the foremost source of historical materials and oral histories of Blacks in the West.”
The story of how it all came about is a tale Paul loves to tell. “When I was growing up in Clinton, Iowa, I used to play cowboys and Indians, and I always wanted to be a cowboy. But the white kids would say there are no Black cowboys. And I looked in the movies and in books, and they were right. I couldn’t find a Black cowboy anywhere. So I played an Indian,” he says with a laugh, pointing out the irony that he later discovered he was part Cherokee and Blackfoot.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Paul was visiting a cousin in Denver and saw a Black cowboy standing on a street corner, dressed in a cowboy hat, boots and vest. “Look at that drug store cowboy,” he said to his cousin. “Who’s he trying to fool? There are no Black cowboys.”
“Why that man is a rancher, who runs cattle,” his cousin said. “He is a cowboy.”
That was a revelation destined to change Paul’s life – and the way the history of the West is written. “Suddenly, it was just like I was hungry,” Paul says. “I had to know about that Black cowboy. I had a hunger to know everything about Black cowboys.”
He moved to Denver in 1962 and opened a barber shop at 2511 E. 34th Avenue, where his fascination with Western history soon became known and attracted a collection of “old timers,” who would come in and tell tales while getting their hair cut. Paul kept a tape recorder hidden and would often tape their stories. “One old cowboy would come in, and he would tell me stories and say I should meet so-and-so. Sometimes they would bring in old pictures, and I would put them up in the shop and in the windows.”
Soon people were giving him old hats, boots and coats that they had worn herding cattle, or that their grandfathers had worn as buffalo soldiers in the Old West. Locals in the neighborhood would stop by to look at the displays and photos in the windows. As he continued studying, Paul found out that Blacks in the West were involved in much more than working on ranches. “I was fascinated by Black miners that were here in Central City and Cripple Creek who had struck it rich,” he said.
Paul and some friends tried gold panning on the weekends without much luck, but more and more he discovered that the real “gold” in the West was the forgotten and unwritten Black history he was uncovering. He learned there were Black newspapers, Black bankers, Black politicians and railroad workers. As Paul’s reputation as a historian spread, more and more people searched him out to give him historic photos and artifacts.
At the same time, Paul began driving to all corners of the West, from Oklahoma to California, to meet “old timers” and hear and record their stories first hand. One 92-year-old man told him how he’d carried water down into the gold mines when he was just a 10-year old boy. Others told him stories handed down from their grandparents of coming West on Black wagon trains, or of living in all Black townships, like Dearfield, east of Greeley.
Paul’s collection outgrew the barber shop and in 1971, he moved it to a saloon, before finding a more permanent home for the next decade at Clayton College. Paul wrote two books, Westward Soul and The Black Cowboy, and became affiliated with Denver Public Schools, introducing thousands of kids to stories of Black cowboys and pioneers.
And what stories Paul could tell. With an audience of wide-eyed kids who had never heard Black history before, Paul would relate tales of people like Mary Fields, who was the first woman to “ride shotgun” on a stagecoach. “One time a driver got sick and had to stop, but the mail had to go through, so Mary took over and drove the stagecoach. Five miles down the road, it hit a boulder and turned over. All night, Mary had to fight off wolves that attacked her in a pack. In the morning, she picked up the mail and walked 10 miles and took it to the post office and said, ‘Here’s your mail, but I’m tired. I’ve been fighting wolves all night.’”
Mary, who at age 80 opened a laundry in Cascade and started each day in the saloon with a shot of “red-eye,” is just one of a collection of characters that roll out of Paul in a continuous stream of stories.
There’s Charlie Rothwell, a cantankerous homesteader who was fine until riled, and then, “Pow!” as Paul tells it, he would flatten his advisory with “fists as hard as wood.” Or Louis Price, who escaped from slavery in Missouri, fought in the Civil War and opened Denver’s first Black newspaper – the Denver Star Weekly. And there’s Bill Pickett, who invented bulldogging ( and the unorthodox method of biting the bull’s lips) as a rodeo sport and was so famous that film star cowboy Tom Mix once worked with him. And Oliver T. Jackson, who founded Dearfield, and Ferdinand Schavers, who was once Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, and Benjamin Franklin, who was a friend and guide with Kit Carson, and Clara Brown, the “Angel of the Rockies,” who made money from grubstaking miners and used it to buy her friends and relatives from slavery.
Any conversation with Paul is bound to take many twists and turns, as one story leads to another, from buffalo soldiers to homesteaders, outlaws to politicians, printers to railroad porters, with even a famous poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the first Black person to win an Academy Award, Denver’s own Hattie McDaniel, thrown in. Paul knows them all like old friends and rattles off tale after tale – all of them illustrating one simple message: that the American West, so often depicted as the “White Open Plains,” was actually filled with people of color who played vital roles in every aspect of society.
In 1987, the Paul Stewart Collection of photos, memorabilia, audio tapes and artifacts formed the basis of the new Black American West Museum. Located in the former home of Denver’s Dr. Justina Ford, the museum and Paul became an instant media sensation.
“I don’t believe any attraction in Denver has received as much press around the world as Paul Stewart and the Black American West Museum,” states Rich Grant, director of communications for VISIT DENVER, The Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Paul was interviewed by the late and famous, CBS journalist, Charles Kuralt, he appeared on Good Morning America and National Public Radio, and stories about him and Black cowboys were written for every in-flight magazine, every travel magazine, and virtually every newspaper in the country, from the New York Times to the San Francisco Examiner,” Grant says. “Smithsonian Magazine, the most prestigious history magazine in the country, did a 12-page story on Paul and the contributions he made to collecting Black history.”
But it was in international press that Paul’s story really made a hit. “Paul has appeared on television in England, Germany, Japan, France and so many other countries,” Grant states. “People in Denver know him from some of the press he has gotten here, but they don’t know how famous he is around the world.” Today, more than half the visitors to the Black American West Museum are international visitors, many of whom have seen stories about Paul or read about him in international guidebooks.
“Through media, Paul’s story about the contributions of Blacks to the history of the American West has been seen and read by people across the globe,” says Grant. “He literally helped change the way the history of our country is told for tens of millions of people.”
Dr. Anthony P. Young, President of Denver-Rocky Mountain Association of Black Psychologists remembers, “I met Paul in 1981 after hearing about his museum, then in the basement of the Clayton College. I drove from my home in Colorado Springs to spend about an hour. When I arrived, Paul was engrossed in organizing numerous items, but greeted me with a broad smile and said, ‘Howdy, take a look at this!’” Dr. Young went on to serve as Chair of the Black American West Museum in 1985-86 and is now back serving as the Museum’s Co-Chair. “I’m still fascinated and have been ever since Paul shared this amazingly rich history of Blacks in the West.”
Tom “Dr. Colorado” Noel, a professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver, who has written 39 books on Denver and Colorado history says, “I used to go to Paul’s barber shop just to see all the stuff he had collected and hear his wonderful stories of Colorado’s Black cowboys, miners and other pioneers. No one has done more to collect, preserve and interpret Colorado’s African-American history. I am one of many, many history teachers to have Paul, dressed to the nines in cowboy garb, come talk to my classes. Among historians, Paul Stewart is a celebrated human landmark.”
Retired Denver Public Schools teacher, Ed Augden, recalls Paul’s many visits to teach his students about the contributions of African Americans to the American West. “From Black mountain such as Jim Beckwourth and Black cowboys like Nat Love to musicians such as George Morrison and educators like Marie Greenwood, Paul Stewart gathered and shared the accomplishments of African Americans in settling the West. That, in itself, is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Augden also related a personal story. “One day, in the mid 1980s, as Paul and I spoke after school, I explained to him that my grandfather, as a youth, was a cowboy in southeast Colorado and that he was second cousin to the Younger brothers (of the infamous James-Younger Gang). Paul then startled me with the news that he had a moustache cup and Bowie knife that had belonged to the Youngers. From that conversation and some brief research, I learned that one of the Younger brothers, Frank, had married an African American woman and that some of the descendants of that marriage still live in Denver. To make the story even more interesting, I’ve taught two generations of that family. I’m proud of their accomplishments and to call them my distant cousins. To me, this illustrates the richness of this nation’s history and how we’re more alike than different. We should build upon that richness.”
In the midst of all Paul’s collecting, he collected something else. Going to church one Sunday, he heard local Gospel singer Johnnie Mae Davis sing. He remembers sitting there and thinking, “Boy, that was something!” It was a year before they got together, but this year, they will celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. Johnnie has been a great partner in helping Paul in his historical quest. She’s also turned him into the sharpest dressed cowboy north of the Pecos.
As he enters his 84th year, Paul has not slowed down in the slightest. Though he is on dialysis three days a week, he is also working on another book, preparing for yet another documentary, digitizing his photos and tape recordings and, as always, still collecting stories and material. Meanwhile, Johnnie is off to Italy with her Goddaughter on a trip to Venice, Florence and Rome and still continues with her singing career.
It’s a busy household, but Paul always has time for the thousands of Denver students who constantly stop him in the grocery store or on the street to tell him how much they enjoyed his classes and how much he changed their lives. He’s also still collecting artifacts and anxious to talk with anyone who has old photos or music or memorabilia.
So if you see an older gentleman on a Denver street wearing a Stetson and a big grin, give him a loud “Howdy!” and the cowboy handshake. Then ask him one question about Black cowboys, and settle back and listen. You’re in the hands of one of the great storytellers and historians of all time.