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  • Writer's pictureAlta's Oyster

An Afternoon with Trailblazers at the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

In a time when there are organized efforts to sanitize or outright hide how difficult the U.S. government and its foot soldiers made it for Black people to live, be safe, succeed, and thrive in the United States, spending an hour with the numerous Black people who did just that in Colorado was a balm to my spirit.

Photo of a brick home with a sign in front that says Black American West Museum
Photo by: Alta

Located in Denver, Colorado, the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center is dedicated to telling the story of African American men and women who helped settle and develop the American West as we know it today.

Photo of the ground leading up to the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center
Photo by: Alta

My spirit started vibrating before I stepped foot in the house. You see, the walkway is paved with images of formidable figures such as Mary Fields, AKA Stagecoach Mary, Nat Love, Lu Vason, Stephanie Walker Haynes, and Paul Stewart, among others.

Unbeknownst to me, I walked into the past as soon as I laid eyes on the house. It is the restored home of Doctor Justina Warren Ford. This woman, y'all. This woman! Born in Illinois, she was the first African American physician licensed in Colorado (I italicize the word licensed in recognition that African Americans and other Black people successfully practiced medicine and healthcare long before the White-led institutions deigned to recognize them). Dr. Ford was inspired to pursue medicine by her mother, who was a nurse.

When Dr. Ford applied for her license in Denver, she was told that she had two strikes against her: "You're a lady. You're colored." The more things change, the more they what? Stay the same. Although she was granted a license, she was not allowed to practice in a hospital, so Dr. Ford received patients in her home. She practiced medicine for 50 years, right up until her last days, and she delivered over 7,000 babies. She learned multiple languages to communicate with her patients, because many were immigrants who didn't speak English (and poor White people, and of course African Americans). She allowed patients to pay her in goods and services if they didn’t have money.

The museum dedicates a room to her, and you can peruse the tools she used, including her medicine bag. It is very fitting that the museum resides in the home of a boundary-breaking woman who brought so many lives into the world.

I learned about businesses that supported Denver's Black residents, like Granberry Beauty Salon, Gilmore's Funeral Home (owned by Q.J. Gilmore), American Woodmen Life Insurance Company, the only company in Denver that would hire qualified Black women, Black owned newspapers, and the Rossinian Hotel and Lounge, which hosted mega stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Washington, among many more.

I even found my namesake! Charles and Alta Cousins opened the Arcade Mini Mall, which contained a drugstore and pharmacy, beauty shop, cleaning and pressing shop, and a tailor shop. Alta Cousins? We related? I know Haitians been running around the U.S. since before Haiti's revolution started in 1791. A Haitian man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built the first non-Native, permanent settlement which later became Chicago in 1779.

Black American West Museum & Heritage Center was founded by Paul W. Stewart. As a child in Iowa, Stewart was often told by other children that there was no such thing as a Black cowboy. He learned the truth when he came to Denver: there were Black cowboys during his time and before. This set Stewart on a quest to learn and document everything he could about Black cowboys, pioneers, law men, and homesteaders and to collect as many artifacts as he could. He eventually made his collection public and farther along founded the Black American West Museum.

It follows, then, that the museum pays homage to Black cowboys, cowgirls, pioneers, law men, and homesteaders. In addition to the names I mentioned at the beginning of this article, inspiring information is provided about Walter Jackson (believed to be the first African American child born in Montana Territory), the Parker Brothers, who owned a ranch in Cherry Creek in the late 1800s (I could've never guessed that Cherry Creek used to be a Black colony), Dan Diamond, AKA Black Diamond, and Cathay Williams.

Cathay Williams enlisted in the US Regular army in 1866 as William Cathay, because women weren’t allowed to serve. She served for two years before she was discovered and discharged. She became disabled because of her time in service, suffering from neuralgia and diabetes, which led to the amputation of her toes.

Despite her service and the toll it took on her body, a doctor employed by the U.S. Pension examined her and decided that she did not qualify for disability payments. But White women veterans like Deborah Sampson, Anna Maria Lane, and Molly Pitcher got pensions for their service during the American Revolutionary War, which took place long before Cathay's enlistment. Cathay Williams' final resting place is not known, which is a damn shame.

I first learned about William Cathay in the 2021 Netflix movie The Harder They Fall, a Black Western whose characters are many of the folks I've mentioned. I highly recommend this movie, and I highly recommend ignoring the insulting light bright casting for Stagecoach Mary.

I hope I've given you enough names and stories to pique your curiosity. The tidbits I included here came from notes I took during my visit. Black American West Museum & Heritage Center gives space to so many more names, and you will be better for visiting and spending time with them. It's only open on Saturdays, and visitors must schedule their visits.

One of the names the museum elevates is Oliver T. Jackson, who founded the Black homesteading colony of Dearfield, Colorado in 1910. And I'll leave it there, because I'm making my way to Dearfield soon, and I'll report back!

I love learning about history, and history/cultural museums are my favorite avenues from which to learn. I feel that now more than ever it is important to ground ourselves in the triumphs of Black, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized groups. There is hope in the triumph.

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