With each thumb hooked firmly into the pockets of his Wranglers, Larry Callies offers himself up as evidence of something he once saw as rare and unusual: the black cowboy. “Until I started digging, I really thought it was just my family,” he explains, gesturing to the collection of blown-up photographs and memorabilia amassed here in the three-room Black Cowboy Museum, which he founded in a downtown Rosenberg strip mall two years ago.
Callies, 67, recently discovered that some of the first American cowboys were slaves working cattle for settlers in the 1820s, around what became Fort Bend County. The very term, he explains, has roots in race: Slaves were the “cow boys,” whereas whites were the “cow hands,” at least until that distinction was flattened by Hollywood filmmakers into the durable John Wayne archetype.
This history was not taught in 1960s Hungerford, a rural blip southwest of Houston where Callies grew up attending segregated schools. His cowboy father may have furnished the stock for the local rodeos and taught his son how to rope calves, but when area schools finally integrated and Callies strutted down the hallway in his boots, he was tripped and taunted as an imposter. “When people think people oughta be a certain way, they make fun of them,” Callies says today.
As a young man Callies competed in the odd rodeo while focusing on his dream of becoming a country singer. He would eventually perform for President George H.W. Bush and Texas Governor Ann Richards, and open for Selena. But on the eve of recording an album with George Strait’s manager, his voice gave out as a neurological condition called vocal dysphonia left him permanently unable to sing. Today he speaks in a high-pitched croak.
Callies went on to serve as a historical reenactor at the George Ranch Historical Park. And it was there that he discovered a photograph from the 1880s showing eight cowboys astride their horses, seven of whom were black—the first proof he’d encountered, Callies says, that cowboys like him were not anomalies or copycats but rather the real, original thing.
In 2017 Callies received what he describes as a directive from God to open the museum. “Why do you want me?” he remembers asking the voice in the night. “I can’t even talk!” But the voice reminded him how many other black cowboys he personally knows and how much he loves the cowboy life. He decided to finance the museum with his life savings and began gathering artifacts such as saddles and newspaper clippings, while also reading every book he could find on the topic. Within a few months, he was able to open the museum to the public.
Today Callies acts as a personal guide to the museum’s visitors, drawing a direct line from the first slaves rounding up longhorns to the giants of Texas’s black rodeo circuit, including Callies’s own cousin, Tex Williams, and legendary Prairie View Trail Riders Association trail boss Myrtis Dightman. Busloads of children fall under his storytelling spell as he recounts how these men competed side by side, breaking barriers and often defeating their white counterparts in events like calf roping and bull riding.
It’s perhaps a coincidence that Callies has found his voice around the same time that juggernauts like Solange and Lil Nas X—the 20-year-old singer behind this year’s record-setting, chart-topping “Old Town Road”—are advancing what has become known as “the YeeHaw agenda,” which stakes a claim to the place of black cowboys in pop culture. So many of the news articles discussing the trend have mentioned his tiny Rosenberg museum, Callies has printed out and laminated the Google search results that show his face sandwiched between those of these international superstars.
And then came a shout-out from The New York Times earlier this year. In the aftermath, Callies has fielded interview requests from as far as the United Kingdom and India. Meanwhile a letter recently informed him that the museum would be used as a clue on Jeopardy!, and dozens of messages have poured in expressing gratitude, such as this one: “On behalf of my family, we always knew there were black cowboys out there—we just didn’t know where.” That message was from none other than Whoopi Goldberg, who donated $1,500 to the museum’s GoFundMe page.
Callies has no intention of wasting all this momentum. His grand plan is to break out of the cramped strip-mall space and into broader pastures. Every donation will contribute to a purchase of some acreage in nearby Richmond, where he’d like to open a new, expanded museum and allow cattle to roam free. And, he says, once he’s done telling museumgoers about Tex Williams, Myrtis Dightman, and their forebears, everyone will climb into a horse-drawn wagon to witness cowboy life for themselves. “People just don’t get to see the longhorns in the woods anymore,” he says with a wistful twinkle in his eye. “I want them to experience what I used to experience.”
► The Black Cowboy Museum: 1104 3rd St., Rosenberg, blackcowboymuseum.org