Stewart, Paul Wilbur 1925—
Stewart, Paul Wilbur 1925—
Paul Wilbur Stewart 1925—
Paul Stewart, founder and director of the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, has dedicated his life to documenting the role that blacks played in settling and shaping the American West. Paul Stewart’s own collection forms the nucleus of the museum’s holdings, which now total 35,000 items. Based in Denver, Colorado, the museum is considered to be the most comprehensive source of historical material on African Americans in the West.
Paul Wilbur Stewart was born on December 18,1925, in Clinton, Iowa, the son of Martha and Eugene Stewart. Eugene Stewart was in the trucking business and owned a trucking company during the Depression. The Stewarts were one of the few black families in the predominantly white area.
As a child growing up in the 1930s, Stewart enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians. However, he always had to be one of the Indians, because his white playmates insisted that there was no such thing as a black cowboy. It was not until the early 1960s that Stewart would learn differently. In fact, according to one estimate, nearly one-third of cowboys were black.
Stewart joined the Navy after high school, attaining the rank of seaman first class. When he returned from service, he moved to Evanston, Illinois, along with his brother Eugene. There, Stewart worked as a mail sorter in the post office and took evening classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Later, he dropped out of school in order to help his brother with his college expenses. Stewart then trained to be a barber, earning a certificate from Moler Barber College in 1947. For more than a decade, Stewart earned his living as a barber in various places in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York.
In the early 1960s, Stewart travelled to Denver to visit a relative—a visit that would decide the rest of his career. One day while they were sight-seeing, Stewart noticed a black man dressed as a cowboy. “He was wearing full cowboy regalia—boots, chaps, gun belt, spurs, cowboy hat—I mean everything,” Stewart told
At a Glance…
Born Paul Wilbur Stewart, December 18, 1925, Clinton, Iowa; son of Eugene Joseph Stewart and Martha L. Moor Stewart; married Johnnie Mae Davis, 1986; children: Mark, Tracy, Linda, Earl. Education: Hampton Institute, Roosevelt College; certificate, Moler Barber College, 1947.
Licensed barber: Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, and Colorado; Curator, Black American West Foundation; Director, Black American West Museum.
Addresses: Home—Denver, Colorado. Office —Black American West Museum, 3091 California, Denver, CO 80205.
The Smithsonian. “I said to my cousin, ’Look at that drugstore cowboy. Who’s he trying to fool? Everybody knows there are no black cowboys.”
Stewart’s cousin explained that the man was a well-known local rancher—and in fact, black cowboys were no rarity in Colorado. Stewart suddenly realized that black people had been left out of the history books about the West, and he set out to correct the omission. Stewart decided that he would dedicate himself to finding out everything he could about black cowboys, so that other children would not be taught the incomplete history that he had learned. “It became a sort of mission,” he told The Smithsonian.
Stewart moved to Denver and opened a barbershop, which would be the scene of his initial research on African Americans in the West. As he cut black men’s hair, Stewart would ask them if they knew or had heard about any black pioneers. A surprising number of them did. Sometimes, Stewart secretly taped these informal interviews. Later, he sought interviews outside the barber shop, convinced that he had found his life’s work-collecting oral history about blacks in the days of the frontier. Soon, Stewart was travelling all over the western United States, collecting artifacts and interviews.
As the news spread that he was interested in black Western history, people began to drop by the barbershop, bringing artifacts that had been passed down to them—cowboy boots, miner’s helmets, photographs, etc. Stewart initially displayed these items in his shop, until it became so crowded that he decided to look for a permanent exhibition space.
In 1971, Stewart established the collection in an old Denver saloon; but downtown urban renewal soon forced him to look for another location. Denver’s Clayton College offered to house the “Paul Stewart collection” in a room on its campus, where it remained for almost ten years. By then, the collection had become a real museum, incorporated and with a board of directors. Stewart was no longer called the curator of the Black American West Foundation, but rather the director of the Black American West Museum. What the museum lacked, however, was a prominent location; visitors often wandered the campus unable to find the collection.
In the mid-1980s, the museum was moved to a larger, more accessible site in Denver’s Five Points, a largely black neighborhood near the city’s downtown area, and the hub of Denver’s black community in the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1990s, the collection was moved to another location in Five Points—the home of the first African American female physician in Colorado.
The 35,000 items in the museum’s collection include personal artifacts, clothing, photographs, paintings, letters, newspapers, legal documents, and oral histories. One exhibit—objects used by Colorado homesteader Charlie Rothwell—includes rope and saddles, scales for weighing hay, rifle and pistol holders, a small anvil for making horseshoes, a two-man saw, a Navajo blanket, a hat, and a coffee pot with a two-foot handle, for use over a campfire. An unusual aspect of the museum is that artifacts are not hidden behind glass, but out in the open so that visitors can touch them.
The museum documents the lives of the Younger brothers, outlaws who travelled with Jesse James; cowboy Bill Pickett, who was honored with a US postage stamp; and Mary Fields, the second female ever to drive a US mail coach. It also tells the stories of nameless black American men and women who came to the West in covered wagons, and established themselves in black towns such as Dearfield, Colorado, working as farmers, teachers, barbers, and doctors. There is material on black homesteaders, miners, and enlisted men, or “Buffalo soldiers.” “The Indians called them Buffalo soldiers,” Stewart explained in The Smithsonian, “because they were tough and their hair reminded the Indians of buffalo fur—and the name stuck. The buffalo was sacred to the Indians, so some historians believe the name was also a term of respect.”
Open only for limited hours for many years, the museum is now open seven days a week. More than 5,000 visitors from the United States and abroad visit every year. The museum offers education activities and programs, including tours, films, special events, and travelling exhibits. The calendar of events for 1996 includes a celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a youth writing contest, a Western Dance Jamboree, and a 1960s scavenger hunt.
Stewart often gives lectures about black western history at schools, libraries, churches, or other organizations. At one church event, where Stewart was delivering a lecture on black women pioneers, he met his future wife, gospel singer Johnnie Mae Davis. The couple married in 1986, and have four children-Mark, Tracy, Linda, and Earl.
In addition to his work in establishing and running the Black American West Museum, Stewart is a member of the Historical Records Advisory Board for Colorado and has taught at Metropolitan State College in Denver. In 1972, he coproduced the documentary “Blacks Here and Now,” which was shown on Denver’s public television channel. He has received several awards for his work, including the Black Educators United Award in 1977.
Now, like the rancher that he saw more than thirty years ago, Stewart often dresses like a cowboy—not to handle cattle, but to educate. “Paul always liked to wear Western-style clothing—he just needed a wife to show him how to put it all together,” Johnnie Mae Davis told The Smithsonian. “There aren’t too many men who can walk around dressed like a cowboy and carry it off. But Western culture is really in Paul’s blood—he’s presenting an image of something that means a lot to him.”
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 1996-97, Gale Research, 1996.
Oakland Post, May 31, 1995, p. 4.
Smithsonian, August 1989, p. 58.
Black American West Museum Web page (http://www.coax,net/people/lwf/bawmus.htm)