Friday, August 22, 2008

Worth the Detour

The Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

In a modest Victorian house in Denver's Five Points neighborhood, a whole world of African-American history and experience unfolds: blacks escaping from slavery, buying their freedom, and heading west; homesteading, founding towns, joining the Gold Rush; becoming cowboys, soldiers, scouts, teachers, bankers, doctors, lawmen.

There I learned about Clara Brown, who was sold away from her family, bought her freedom, reached the Rockies in a wagon train, and opened a laundry in Central City during the Colorado gold rush that made her a wealthy woman. Nat Love, whose riding and roping skills earned him the name Deadwood Dick. Bill Picket, who founded a traveling rodeo that showcases black cowboys and cowgirls. Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, a skillful detective who may have been the model for the Lone Ranger. And "Stagecoach Mary" Fields, who hauled freight and delivered mail in Cascade, Montana.

The heart of the museum is the collections of Paul Wilbur Stewart, who'd grown up in Iowa thinking there were no black cowboys. But in the 1960s, visiting a cousin in Denver, he saw one--a local black rancher--and learned that as many as one in three cowboys had been black. Inspired to find out all he could about the history of blacks in the west, Stewart moved to Denver, opened a barbershop there, and began his research, collecting artefacts and recording oral history interviews, and eventually sharing his collections with the public.

Besides the larger history of blacks in the West, the museum tells the story of those who made the Five Points neighborhood the vibrant center of black life and culture in Denver. Among them were Dr. V.B. Spratlin, born, a slave, who fearlessly cared for those quarantined in the "pest houses" that many doctors were afraid to enter, and for 27 years was chief medical inspector and quarantine officer of Denver; drugstore owner J.H.P. Westbrook who infiltrated the Denver Ku Klux Klan; and Justina L. Ford, Denver's first black woman doctor, whose home now houses the museum.

Over the course of her 50 year career, Ford, known as "The Lady Doctor," delivered some 7,000 babies. Since she was a strong believer in home birth and was for a time denied hospital privileges, many of them were born here.

Although most of the Five Points businesses featured in the exhibit no longer exist, Welton Street, the main street of the area, is said to be still the only commercial strip in the country owned primarily by blacks. The Rossonian Hotel at 27th and Welton, where jazz greats stayed and played in the integrated lounge during the 1940s and 1950s, has long been closed. But I read in the June issue of the Denver Urban Spectrum that it will "rise from the ages to be a legitimate entertainment destination again."

The Black American West Museum will be open for extended hours August 22-30: 10 am-6 pm (it's usually open Tues.-Sat. 10-2 in the winter, and 10-5 in the summer); admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $6 for children 12 and under. 3091 California, near the 30th-Downing Street stop on the light rail D line (also a bus stop), 1 ½ miles or so from downtown; 303-482-2242;

Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library

A few blocks down Welton Street, in a branch of the Denver Public Library, are more resources for exploring African-American history: terrific exhibits in the Western Legacies gallery on the third floor; and in the second floor reading room, manuscript collections and oral histories, most of which are available for research without previous reservation. The reading room is open Mon.-Wed., and Fri.-Sat. From 11 am to 4 pm; the rest of the museum, Mon-Tues, 12-8 pm, Wed..and Fri., 10 am-6 pm, and Sat. 9 am to 5 pm. 240l Welton St; 720-865-2401; http://

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