African-American Landmarks: The Black Cowboy Museum

    African-American Landmarks: The Black Cowboy Museum

     Part of our African American Landmarks & Desitnation Family Travel Series

    By Kimberly Dijkstra

    Though you wouldn’t know it from Hollywood westerns, African-American men were among the first settlers of the American frontier. From the 1860s through the 1880s in the American West, Black cowboys accounted for up to 25 percent of range workers. Several thousand men, mainly former slaves or children of former slaves, traveled west after the Civil War, settled in the Great Plains, and became integral to the cattle industry. 

    One museum that illustrates “the real story of the cowboy” can be found in Rosenberg, Texas. Opened by local celebrity Larry Callies, The Black Cowboy Museum contains an amazing collection of stories and memorabilia dedicated to the history of the Black cowboy. 

    In a past life, Callies was a roper, cowboy, and country singer. In an interview with the Texas Country Reporter, Larry Callies explained that his Uncle Willie, born in 1919, used to tell him stories about Black cowboys when he was a child. 

    Callies has spent years gathering artifacts and historical accounts of African-Americans in the American West. His museum, a non-profit organization, honors those who have been erased from and forgotten by history.

    Among those showcased in the museum is Bass Reeves, the first black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi River. During his long career, he made more than 3,000 arrests of felons and shot and killed 14 outlaws in self-defense. The expert marksman survived 27 years without injury as a lawman, a job most did not survive during this rough time in history. Though the theory is disputed, some historians believe Reeves could have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character.

    Native Texan Bill Pickett left school in the 5th grade to become a ranch hand. He invented the technique of bulldogging, a method of subduing cattle, which became a stunt he performed at local country fairs. Pickett’s name became synonymous with rodeos and he and his brothers took their show on the road to several states. Eventually he joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, along with notable showmen Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers. The 1921 film The Bulldogger features Pickett performing his signature move. 

    Though Pickett was of African-American and Cherokee descent, he was often forced to claim he was of Comanche heritage in order to perform at rodeos. Forty years after his death, he became the first black inductee into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

    Nat Love is one of the most famous black heroes of the Old West. Born on a plantation in Tennessee, he was fortunate to have been taught to read as a child at a time when black literacy was outlawed. As a teen, Love became a farm hand and worked odd jobs in order to save enough money to head out west. 

    Love found work as a cattle driver, traveling widely and making a name for himself. In 1876, he won several contests in a Deadwood, Dakota Territory, rodeo and earned the nickname Deadwood Dick. In 1907, Love published an autobiography titled Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself, thus cementing his legacy.

    About 20 minutes down the road from the Black Cowboy Museum, the George Ranch Historical Park provides a window into the diverse history of Fort Bend County. Once the county with the second largest population of enslaved people in the Republic of Texas, by 1870, emancipated slaves made up more than half of all cowboys in the area. These men were drawn to cowboy life because they faced less discrimination than in other industries. 

    In addition to the treasure trove of materials and information about Black cowboys, the museum highlights notable rodeo performers, country musicians, and those who fought against segregation. 

    Located just outside the Houston metropolitan area, the Black Cowboy Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday. Call ahead to schedule a tour with Larry Callies himself. 

    Beyond the museum, families can learn about this slice of American heritage in the children’s book Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story. The Netflix film Concrete Cowboy tells a modern tale of Black cowboys in Philadelphia


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