Restoring Black Cowboys to the Range

A pack of red cattle dogs bayed with excitement as Larry Callies drove his pickup truck down a Rosenberg, Tex., ranch road one morning. He pulled up to the barn and stepped a booted foot from the cab to the dirt, and the dogs keened even more wildly, eager to get out on the range: The dogs knew a cowboy when they saw one.

But not everyone sees a cowboy when they look at Mr. Callies. Though he is inevitably dressed in Wranglers, a 10-gallon Stetson and cowboy boots, driving a pickup with a bed full of lassos around this small city about 35 southwest of Houston where he lives, racism and history’s omissions have meant that for many he’s miscast: Mr. Callies is black.

And for most of his adult life, some part of Mr. Callies wondered what part people who looked like him had played in the American West; he was unaware of its rich legacy of black cowboys. Until one rainy day about two decades ago, cleaning out a barn at a guest ranch where he worked, he came across an antique photo from 1880s. In it eight cowboys sat astride eight horses.

That photo is now the centerpiece of The Black Cowboy Museum, a gallery wedged between storefronts in a little mall a few blocks off Rosenberg’s main drag. I arrived on a damp morning after touching down in Houston about an hour earlier, piloting my rental car through the historic downtown, a few blocks of which preserve a frontier-town past. Vintage pinafores fluttered in antique shop windows; on a corner, servers shook up milkshakes at a soda fountain called Another Time. About a block past Bob’s Taco Station, a joint made famous by an appearance on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” I found Mr. Callies waiting in the doorway of his museum.

Mr. Callies opened his museum in 2017 with his life savings, in this town of about 40,000 where about 75 percent of residents are white. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Callies said of the photo that inspired him, as he stood inside the museum on 3rd Street between displays of old saddles and rusty six-shooters. “Cowboys who looked just like me. And I never knew they existed. That they were part of America.”

Mr. Callies, a former mail deliverer and a rodeo rider, has become the self-styled curator and docent of his personal three-room museum. It began as a shrine to the unsung black cowboys in his life, like his cousin Tex Williams, whom he believes in 1967 was the first black boy to win the Texas High School Rodeo Championship, shortly after high school rodeos were officially desegregated. A light-skinned teenager, Tex passed as white as he bareback rode, but family lore has it, the crowd booed when his cowboy hat was bucked off revealing his nappy hair. Mr. Williams’ championship buckles and embroidered chaps festoon the gallery walls.

Shepherding the museum has transformed Mr. Callies from a family cowboy archivist into something of an evangelist, dedicated to reinserting blacks into the historic American landscape where they rode and roped — and were erased.

“No picture of American history has been painted more white than the pioneer picture, the story of the frontier,” William Loren Katz, a historian and author of “The Black West,” said in an interview. In fact, one in four cowboys during what is known as the pioneer era, which began following the Civil War in 1865 and ended around 1895, were black, according to Mr. Katz and other historians. They were town marshals keeping the peace; they were outlaws as famous in their day as Billy the Kid; and barrier-busting rodeo stars as popular in their time as Roy Rogers.

They were cowboys.

And yet, the archetypal cowboy imprinted in the American psyche is a white Marlboro man. It is John Wayne, swaggering through Hollywood’s vision of a frontier town, a fictional place where no black cowboys ever rode the range, where no black faces peered over poker decks behind the swinging saloon doors.

“The West was part of the mythology of America; the cowboys, the narrative of the pioneer spirit represented the best of us,” said Mr. Katz, 92. Before emancipation in 1865, black cowboys were enslaved people, or those who had escaped. The men who would become free black cowboys, would have entered into the American story, “at the end of a whip and in chains,” he added. “And that’s not the American tradition people wanted to remember.”

The Rosenberg gallery is not the only one tackling the subject. In Denver, there is the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, opened in 1971 by Paul Stewart, a local barber who died in 2015. In 2017, the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibited “Black Cowboy,” featuring contemporary photographs of cowboys, including the smattering of those who currently ride the urban range. They are in places like Compton, Calif. and Philadelphia.

“It’s like the old saying that history is written by the victors. In this case the ‘victors’ were those in the society who enslaved and subjected blacks,” said Ron Tarver, a photographer whose pictures of Philadelphia’s urban cowboys were included in the Studio Museum show, and who hails from a long line of Oklahoma’s black cowboys.

Interest in correcting the record stands to grow, Mr. Tarver added. “I think younger African-Americans are looking for a broader definition of what it is to be black in this country.” In recent years, young black people have embraced a boots-and-Stetsons fashion movement called the Yeehaw Agenda. “Old Town Road,” a country song by a black musician, Lil Nas X, vaunting the cowboy lifestyle, has been atop the Billboard 100 this year.

Mr. Callies hopes that will draw people — and resources — to his little Rosenberg museum.

The exhibits are mostly a display of ephemera owned by black cowboys Mr. Callies knew, with a smattering of weapons and history texts. Mr. Callies hosts visitors personally at almost any hour they choose. Entry is $7 for adults, $5 for children. To see the collection, the best bet is to ring first — all calls go straight to Mr. Callies’ cellphone, which he answers with a voice that creaks like an old barn door. He was beset in the early 90s with a mysterious ailment of his vocal cords, leaving him with a permanent rasp that derailed a career as a country-western musician. It is a fate about which Mr. Callies is relentlessly upbeat, smiling his wide newscaster smile as he explains that if he had ended up a country music star, he would have had less time for his true passion: rodeo.

At the gallery, Mr. Callies is both museum president and ticket-taker, making change on a recent afternoon for a customer beside a pile of posters for a film genre that might best be described as blacksploitation Westerns. There is “Chocolate Cowboy,” from 1925, featuring the early 20th Century movie star Fred Parker, a white man, as the protagonist in blackface. And “Harlem on the Prairie,” a 1937 film that was targeted for black audiences that depicts an all-black West, a depiction as at odds with reality as an all-white one.

“In this apocalyptic land everybody — the prospectors and stagecoach drivers, the medicine men, outlaws, sheriff, the hero with the silver-plated stock saddle — is a gentleman of color,” reads a 1937 review of the movie in Time magazine. “No attempt is made to explain how so much pigment got all over the open spaces.”

Mr. Callies hails from a long line of Texas cowboys, but as a young man born in the town of El Campo, he too absorbed the whitewashed mythology — and the prejudice that rained down on his youthful attempts to become a rodeo star.

“I used to go to school and people would kick me if I had a pair of cowboy boots on,” he said. “I had to quit wearing them, because they would beat me up. Whites would beat me, told me the boots were not my own. Blacks would beat me, told me I was a black guy who wants to be white,” he said.

His voice grew thick with emotion. “But this is who I am. I was always going to be a cowboy. If God made me white, I was going to be a cowboy. But God made me black,” he said. “And I am a black cowboy.”

The Black Cowboy Museum is at 1104 3rd Street, Rosenberg, Tex. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., most days, but it is best to call in advance (281) 787-3308. Mr. Callies offers tours by appointment at almost any time.

Admission: Adults: $7 | Seniors (62+): $5 Children (ages 5 to 15): $5 Children under 5 are free.

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