“There’s no such thing as a black cowboy,” Paul W. Stewart was told as a boy. But years later, as an adult, he met a black cowboy, which inspired him to scour the American West for evidence of their existence. The artifacts he collected can be viewed at the Black American West Museum (BAWM), which he founded in 1971. In the 1980s, his collection came to rest in Justina Ford’s house. As in any other “house museum,” the exhibits have been squeezed into the space as best they can. BAWM upstairs with reflections Denver Aug 2009

When I visited BAWM last week, I was given a brief tour by a docent and then encouraged to watch a 30-minute film about Dearfield, an all-black farming community founded in 1910 east of Greeley. I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Today I want to talk about what I learned at the museum, which is “dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating the contributions of Blacks in the Old West.”

One room upstairs is dedicated to African American military service, and in addition to the Buffalo Soldier exhibit, I noticed a plaque from the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies to Lieutenant Colonel John Mosley, thanking him and all the 1 million African Americans who served in World War II for helping to fight Nazism.

I hadn’t realized that number was so high. It must have been quite a shock for those men and women to return to the United States after World War II—and to Jim Crow. No wonder the civil rights movement grew so strong in the decades following World War II.

Another corner holds household items, including an ivory-colored wedding shirtdress and the oddest item I saw: a mirror decorated with deer hooves. BAWM deer hoof mirror Denver Aug 2009After that, the tools no longer used (grinding wheel), BAWM grinding wheel Denver Aug 2009or the rodeo equipment unfamiliar to me (bosals), seemed positively commonplace.

The museum offers so much that I could not absorb it all, but here are a few other notes I jotted down:

  • The Five Points neighborhood in Denver was one-half built out by 1890; the rest was finished by 1914. It was a white community until the 1920s.
  • The Atlas Drug Store, at 27th and Welton, was the only one in Denver where African Americans could sit at the counter. I wonder if that is where Blackberries coffee shop sits now.
  • From a picture upstairs: “Bill Pickett invented the art of bulldogging. Pickett would jump from the horse onto the steer’s neck, twist its neck and sink his teeth into its tender nose or lips, driving the steer to the ground.” That sounds mean, I think.
  • J. H. P. Westbrook, a black man who passed for white, infiltrated the KKK in Denver in the early 1900s and informed the black community of their plans.
  • Lloyd Hall filed 100 patents for food preservation and sterilization.
  • Lonnie G. Johnson’s company invented the Supersoaker.
  • The wrench was invented in 1922 by a black man named Jack Johnson. [See comment below for correction. The first wrench was invented in 1835; Johnson patented a new version.]
  • Among the many pictures of historical figures and donors on the wall, I noticed a picture of CU Professor Charles Nilon. When I worked for Fiction Collective Two at CU-Boulder in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the press instituted the Charles N. and Mildred Nilon Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction (now defunct, as far as I can tell from the FC2 website). The first award went to Melvin Dixon for his novel Trouble the Water.

I like going to a new place and finding a connection to some bit of my past.


Note: The museum’s executive director, La Wanna Larson, allowed me to show some photographs on this blog, but in general, the museum does not allow cameras inside.


Check out the Earthworks Expo at the Merchandise Mart this weekend.

Museo de las Americas is holding its Spanish happy hour Friday from 5 to 8. This month it’s hosted by Rebecca Caro of the blog From Argentina with Love.

Leave A Comment

  1. BernardL August 20, 2009 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    The wrench was invented in 1835 by Solymon Merrick. Charles Moncky invented the monkey wrench (the original adjustable wrench) around 1858. Robert Owen, Jr (1881 – 1956) invented the ratchet wrench. Owen received a patent on September 9, 1913. On September 13, 1870, a patent was granted to Daniel C. Stillson, a steamboat fireman, for a “wrench”. Stillson invented the pipe wrench – sometimes called the Stillson pipe wrench. While I believe Jack Johnson was the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time his wrench patent is not the precedent of any wrench used today. All the others are used daily in upgraded form. The only improvement ever made on Stillson’s pipe wrench is they offer it in an aluminum alloy now.

  2. Beth August 20, 2009 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    Hey, Bernard, thanks for the history lesson. Did you know this already, or did you look it up?

  3. BernardL August 21, 2009 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    I knew all the particulars, but I looked through the paper I did on it to get the dates right in the post. I’ve always admired Stillson. He invented the pipe wrench which clenches a rounded surface tighter with successive force applied. I used his same basic design just last weekend. It’s simplicity and usefulness is a timeless work of art.