Stony gray eyes peer from the Lone Ranger’s iconic mask, intimidating outlaws and captivating generations of Wild West fans. To this day, few know the character was likely based on the life of African American U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves.
Reeves’ achievements, and other concealed pieces of history, are commemorated in the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, beside founder and CEO Larry Callies’ memorabilia from days as a black cowboy working on ranches and competing in rodeos.
It’s just history, said Callies who was born in El Campo. “Just the real history of where cowboys came from, and who were the real cowboys.”
After finding a picture of seven black cowboys in the 1800s, Callies was inspired to dig further into the history and to open his non-profit museum two years ago.
“I worked cows like they did,” Callies said.
The term ‘cowboy’ was used in the early 1800s for black men working with cattle, while white men preferred to differentiate themselves as cowhands. It wasn’t until cowboys began to be celebrated in Wild West folklore that cowboys were portrayed as white, Callies said.
PBS aired an interview with Callies on black cowboy history Nov 14, and Netflix, whose documentary crew will film Callies’ Black Cowboy Museum Rodeo in Wharton on Saturday, Dec. 5.
Ninety-five buses filled with curious visitors have trekked to his museum, according to Callies, from Houston and as far away as California. After an article covering the Black Cowboy Museum was published in The New York Times, calls from across the world flooded Callies’ phone, seeking more information about black cowboys.
Callies believes his museum is enthralling because many have no idea black cowboys existed, which is shocking to Callies.
“That’s what I grew up with,” Callies said. “We have a lot of black cowboys in El Campo, Wharton, Fort Bend.”
At 10 years old, Callies developed an interest in the rodeo world. He and his cousin, Tex Williams, frequently competed in white rodeos in the area, even though the events were segregated at the time.
“It’s something I wanted to do,” Callies said. “I wanted to compete against some of the best. Some of the best were white rodeos. We didn’t have anything like that at the black rodeos.”
Competing in Hallettsville, Williams was the first black man to make the state finals in a Texas all-white rodeo, Callies was the second, and Williams was the first black man to win in 1967, according to Callies.
“It was just now becoming to where they would accept us to ride, but they didn’t want us to win,” Callies said.
After the rodeos were desegregated, racism continued to dictate which riders could compete when some rodeos required photos be submitted with their applications, he said.
“Whenever I sent a picture with my application to ride, I never was accepted,” Callies said. “If I didn’t have to send a picture, they accepted me. It was still segregation, they just got smart.”
Callies has many stories to tell, whether on his own near-death experience riding a banana-horned bull, his career as a country-western singer opening for Selena, or about how the first cowboys, who were African slaves, herded cattle.
“If people want to know what the real cowboys did in the 1800s, come to my museum,” Callies said.
The Black Cowboy museum contains saddles and mementos from some of Callies’ cowboy friends of other races who were impactful in his life.
“It’s called a black cowboy museum, but it’s open to everybody,” Callies said.
The Black Cowboy Museum is located at 1104 Third in Rosenberg and is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $5 for children and seniors and regular admission is $7.
To arrange tours on Saturday, call Callies at 281-787-3308, or for more information, visit Blackcowboymuseum.org.