Paul Stewart, founder and curator emeritus of Denver's Black American West Museum, stands before the third group of schoolchildren he's seen today, this time at Greenlee Elementary School, where the students are mostly Hispanic. He's here for an assembly celebrating Martin Luther King Day, just another in a long line of presentations he's given under his contract with Denver Public Schools.
Wearing a black cowboy hat, black shirt and pants and a gray vest with an "S" embroidered on one side, he cuts the exact image of the people his museum has single-handedly resurrected from obscurity: the ruggedly independent African-Americans of Colorado and the West.
"It's tremendous what he's done," says the museum's administrator, Wallace Yvonne McNair. "The museum would not be in existence if not for his considerable effort."
But Paul Stewart is quick to point out that, contrary to popular belief, he and the museum are two separate entities. And there's a vibe of tension in his voice as he speaks about the institution he created more than 25 years ago.
"People can take you over," he says. "You become invisible. For a time they didn't want to acknowledge me as the founder."
Stewart began collecting the 20,000 items that now form the bulk of the museum's 35,000 artifacts back in the Sixties. Today the museum is basically set up as a board of trustees that oversees Stewart's collection; he receives royalties for the loan and serves an an ex officio member of the board. To this day, says McNair, the museum remains the only one of its kind in the United States.
But Stewart hasn't run the museum's day-to-day operations for years. And like the pioneers he has studied for over three decades, the 72-year-old Stewart is eager to strike out on his own.
Stewart says he plans to take his collection on the road--perhaps abroad--and to do so under his own name, not the museum's. "If you can get out to the mainstream where people can see you, you start to move," he explains.
Steve Shepard, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, says that group has no problem with Stewart taking whatever he wants; the founder is still a valuable part of the museum, he adds, and he says all is well between Stewart and the rest of the board. "It's not a matter of disassociating his relationship with the museum," Shepard says. "He wants to put more emphasis on speaking engagements and outside activities other than the museum."
And that, Shepard adds, is pretty much "what's been going on for 25 years."
True enough, Stewart has been fairly visible through those years. He's published three books on the role of the black cowboy in the settling of the frontier. He's appeared on the Today show and on CBS Morning News. He produced a documentary on the black town of Dearfield, Colorado, in 1977. Photos from his collection were used as part of Mario Van Peebles's Posse, a 1993 film about black gunslingers.
But still, Stewart has the air of a man who wishes for a little more recognition. For example, he's not exactly thrilled with a 1995 documentary about Dearfield that garnered more attention than his own effort. "I wouldn't go to see it because I was angry," he says. "It was stolen from me."
Stewart is off-base, responds one of the film's producers, Donnie Betts. Betts says that he and co-producer Reynelda Muse asked Stewart to be an equal partner in their documentary but never heard back from him. And the museum wanted to charge $50 to $75 for prints of its photos.
"Paul was not of any help--nor was the museum, in any way, shape or form," Betts adds. "Paul is a very bitter, difficult person. He thinks he has ownership of all black history, and he doesn't."
Nevertheless, Stewart has certainly come to know his way around the black West. He grew up on a farm in Iowa, where the work regimen was "can to can't," he recalls. "You worked as soon as you can see in the morning until you can't see at night." He eventually migrated east to Evanston, Illinois, where he spent several years working as a barber and befriended another man who would become a Five Points legend, Count Bacon.
Stewart came to Colorado in 1962, encouraged by a distant cousin. Earl Mann had been among the first blacks to serve in World War I, where he was gassed on a battlefield in France. He was brought back to Colorado to die. Amazingly, he recuperated and went to work for the Denver Board of Water Commissioners in 1924, later becoming a contributing columnist for the Denver Post and the state's first black legislator after 1900, Stewart says. Among his legislative contributions was helping to pass the open-occupancy bill that helped create housing opportunities for black Denverites in the 1930s.
Thirty years later Mann showed his younger relative around Denver. Stewart liked what he saw--particularly the black cowboys.
He remembers rounding a local street corner and coming face-to-face with a tall black man wearing boots and spurs and chaps and carrying a gun. (Possession of a gun was legal as long as the gun wasn't loaded.)
At first Stewart couldn't believe his eyes. "Look at that drugstore cowboy over there," he recalls saying. "Who's he trying to fool? There are no black cowboys."
But there were. Fascinated, Stewart embarked on a hobby that would become his life's work. He began collecting whips and guns and photos and interviewing African-Americans who had memories of frontier days. In 1971 Stewart founded his Black American West Museum at 221 24th Street, in a spot where a HUD project now stands. Over the next seventeen years, he moved his museum around northeast Denver, each time setting up shop in a space that was a bit more spacious than the previous one.
In 1972 he moved the museum to a storefront at the corner of Colfax and Detroit. When rent there became too high, the Clayton School for Boys gave Stewart a rent-free spot in its facility just off Colorado Boulevard. The museum stayed there for ten years, until 1985, when Stewart moved his collection into the Points, to 26th and Welton. In 1988 the museum finally bought its current home, a Victorian building at the northern end of the light-rail line at California Street and 30th Avenue.
The kids at Greenlee know little about the history of black men and women in the West. But after Stewart gives his presentation, they are eager to learn more. As they exit the auditorium, Stewart laughs and displays the extent of his Spanish. "Adios, amigo!," he calls out to the youngsters. "Adios, vaquero!" For those students brave enough to approach him, Stewart offers his cowboy handshake: pinkies interlock, then the thumbs touch, then the hands swing around for a full handshake.
And for a moment, Stewart forgets his unhappiness with the institution he founded.
"Right now I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," he says. "To me, what I'm seeing is, a black person, if he digs hard enough, can make good.
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