Features

Wrangling Black History

Local ‘cowboy’ lassos the past one artifact and artwork at a time

For most of his 90 years, Murphy Darden has been riding alongside the past and grabbing history by the horns.

With little fanfare, this artist has wrangled a heap of Kalamazoo’s cultural history and the country’s black cowboys from stampedes of time, ignorance and indifference.

He’s captured historical moments with paint and brush, like the NAACP’s 1963 boycott of Van Avery Drugstore for not hiring blacks.. He’s rounded up tableware from Kalamazoo’s no-longer-there Pacific Inn. Once located east of downtown Kalamazoo near the East Michigan Avenue/Riverview Drive viaduct, this restaurant/nightclub was one of the few places African-Americans and whites mixed. With his scale-model creations, Darden has resurrected Kalamazoo’s first black churches as well as Parchment’s paper mill. His model of the former mill is on permanent display at the Parchment Community Library.

When the Enoch and Deborah Harris homestead on Parkview Avenue was destroyed by the Oshtemo Township Fire Department for firefighting practice in 2006, Darden sifted through the ashes, rustling up bits of roof shingle, broken pottery and foundation stone. Appreciating the significance of the Harrises being the first African-American settlers in Southwest Michigan, he transported the items to his home for display there.

He has also designed eye-catching displays depicting George Washington Carver and other historical figures. Through these displays, along with his artwork and wide-ranging collection, he has transformed his Northside Kalamazoo home into the Murphy Darden African-American Cowboy and Historical Museum. (Until recently, private tours were available by appointment, but now Darden is working to find a permanent home for his collection, where it can live on after him.)

A man is not born a cowboy — he becomes one

Right out of the gate, Darden will tell you he’s a church founder and charter member of Bible Baptist Church of Kalamazoo. A man born into a segregated South, he’s made his home in the North. But he also carries the West in his heart. Which is why, with all the things he does, one would be remiss not to add would-be cowboy to that list.

Along with his identical twin brother, Irvin, Darden was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in 1928. He has a habit of punctuating his lilting Southern speech with an occasional “woo-hee!” that jingles like spurs at the end of his sentences. He’s loved cowboys for as long as he can remember.

When Darden was a young boy, his mother, Dicy, would take her twins to the movie theater. “They were all Westerns back then,” recalls Darden, and cowboys piqued his imagination. “It was all action and big 10-gallon hats, and I loved how the cowboys always, always get the bad guys.

“Later, my brother and I, we’d go to a show for 10 cents. Ten cents was sure hard to come by then. Woo-hee!” hollers Darden, slapping his knee. When they could round up a bit more, they would buy ice cream in Dixie cups, collecting the lids, which had pictures of white cowboys and movie stars on the underside.

His mother, a cook, saved up and bought the boys Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson cowboy outfits. After Darden outgrew his cowboy costume, he created his own Lone Ranger mask and fashioned gun holsters from leather belts. “I always dressed like a cowboy,” he says. “And ’cause of Herb Jeffries, I started collecting anything I could on black cowboys. Jeffries, now he was a tall, good-looking fellow, the Gene Autry type, you know? He was a black singer and actor, and he told Hollywood, ‘I want to make my own Westerns. I want to be the star and ride and shoot and sing. And I want all black actors cast in my movies.’ Well, they let him. He made Westerns like The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range.”

No matter where you ride to, that’s where you are

At the end of his ninth-grade year at Aberdeen Colored High School, Darden decided to seek wider pastures “because,” he says, “I found my girl.”

“Manassa was in 12th grade. She was going back to her daddy and mama in Macon, Mississippi. I couldn’t let her get away, so I married her, secretly,” he says. “We got married for five dollars. I had three and borrowed two. Woo-hee!”

Eventually, their parents found out. In 1948, with $50 that Darden’s mother-in-law loaned him, he boarded a train bound for his cousin’s home in Kalamazoo. “Well, now, I didn’t have all $50,” he says, admitting he spent some of it on candy to impress his young bride before he left.

Darden got a job at the Hotel Harris as a houseman and then sent for his wife. (She worked at Borgess Medical Center for 33 years. She died in 1988.) Darden then sent for his twin brother, who also got work at Hotel Harris and sent for his wife. Eventually, his twin brother got a job as a sweeper at Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co. (later James River Corp. then Crown Vantage). Irvin helped Darden get a sweeper job there, too. Darden would later move into the position of industrial painter before retiring from the mill in 1990.

The couples worked hard, saved money and pooled their resources to buy a house. But that would prove to be quite a feat. Back then, in the 1950s and '60s, it was easier for a black cowboy to infiltrate a herd of wild mustangs than break into the housing market. Darden shakes his head, recalling a rodeo of real estate agents unwilling to show them homes they were interested in and the brothers and their wives being told at open houses that the homes were no longer available. The couples finally bought a house together on North Rose Street. (In the 1930s and for several decades thereafter, the federal government and banks would provide home mortgages only for certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic makeup — a practice called redlining — and homes in those neighborhoods would have deeds that prevented blacks from buying those homes. Redlining was outlawed in 1968.)

“We were the first blacks on the street,” notes Darden. “Whites started moving out as we moved in, and pretty soon the whole street was black.” After 10 years, the brothers decided to each buy their own home to accommodate their growing families. They encountered the same old rodeo. Eventually, Darden and his wife purchased a ranch-style house a few blocks north, the same home he lives in today. Darden’s brother and his wife bought a house on the west side of town.

“Moving from the South, I didn’t think it would be the same,” says Darden of the racism they encountered in the home-buying process. “But it wasn’t any different back then. Only difference was that you didn’t have to say ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir.’”

Ride the horse in the direction it's goin’

It was years later, while working at the Parchment paper mill, that Darden’s true cowboy spirit reared up.

“I was in the washroom cleaning up, and the radio was on. It was Black History Month, and they were talking about a cowboy named Bill Pickett. A black cowboy! I stopped and said, ‘What?’ Up till then, I only knew of Herb Jeffries. And he wasn’t a real cowboy. He just played like he was one. But Bill Pickett, he was the real thing. I thought, ‘Now I got some history here too. I can be Bill Pickett. I never had a horse or anything, but I’m a cowboy!’ Woo-hee!

“… We’ve been left us out of a lot of history,” he says, his tone turning somber. “If we’re written about at all, books might say ‘a negro’ or maybe ‘a negro cook.’ Names are important. Names! Names! Names!”

Once Darden lassoed the lie that the Old West was white, he couldn’t let go. Learning of Bill “Dusky Demon” Pickett spurred Darden to learn all he could about black cowboys. Historians estimate one in four cowboys was black, so it’s not surprising that names started piling up: Bob Lemons, Nat Love, Bass Reeves and more.

“We were cowboys,” says Darden. “We were marshals, outlaws and cooks. Everything the West did, we were part of it! If we don’t write about our own history and tell it — and correct it when we need to — it will be lost. It hurts me, all the history we’ve already lost, the names lost, all those that helped tame the West.”

Some people follow wagon tracks; others blaze new trails

It bothered Darden so much that he started his own speaking circuit, “from Galesburg to Plainwell,” visiting schools, libraries and churches, sharing what he’d wrangled over the years, and helping people understand that history is more colorful than they could ever imagine.

“There’s so much history to be learned,” he says.

Darden believes our country’s educational system must reconsider the way students learn American history. He’d like to see black history integrated throughout the school year as well as the subject matter deepened during Black History Month.

“He’s had this dream for a long time, to get people more aware of African-American history,” says local playwright and poet Buddy Hannah, “and especially the African-American cowboys.” Hannah arranged Darden’s speaking gigs and did the driving. Often, Darden would rope him into speaking too.

“We’d go into classrooms and he was so sincere in his message to young people,” recalls Hannah. “Just from their faces you could tell they loved learning about their history. The message relayed was, ‘Here’s something for you to be proud of — your ancestors weren’t just slaves. Look at all they’ve done. They’ve even helped pave the West!’

“Man,” says Hannah, “his passion is so genuine. If I can be like him when I’m 90, I’ll be very happy.”

If you ain’t making dust, you’re eating it

Darden found other ways to express his admiration for black cowboys as well.

“I love drawing. Always have,” he says. In his early 20s, after a decade of drawing the white cowboys he saw in movies, Darden wanted to develop his artistic talents, so he took a correspondence course out of Chicago. “That didn’t help any. It didn’t give me any kind of feedback to know how I could get better,” he admits.

In 1948, Darden and his brother took a class at the Kalamazoo Art Center (now the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts) “to learn to draw the human figure, and we did.” After years spent perfecting his craft, Darden says, “I’ll see something in my mind or see a picture or scene, and I’ll draw or paint it.” When Darden feels deeply moved by a subject matter, he’ll “take it to another level, not just something that’s going to hang on a wall.” Creating scale models and busts gives him the greatest satisfaction.

“I want something I can carve and feel, take in from different angles. Drawing or painting on paper, yes, that’s all good, but when you make a model, something three-dimensional that you can touch, look at from all ways, it gives you a deeper connection,” he says.

It takes Darden “about a year” to carve a bust from wood. “If I don’t have a picture for reference, I’ll draw it out first,” he explains, “then draw it in on wood, then start cutting out the wood. Chisel, chisel, chisel. Sometimes I have to fill in with a little putty. And then chisel, chisel till it comes out right. You can tell who they are, so I’d say they come out pretty good.”
Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. line one wall in his dining room. A bust of Frederick Douglass sits in the living room.

“I’m working on Obama now,” he says, gently cupping his hands over the cheeks of the 44th president of the United States. He stands back and inspects his work. “I don’t have him quite right yet. Not sure what I need to do. Maybe his cheeks? Eyes? The eyes are a little too squinty, I think.”

It’s in moments like this that he yearns for his twin brother, who died in 2015. “I miss him so much,” says Darden. “We criticized each other, helped each other. I miss that. We always did things together.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

Darden’s lifelong passion and work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In September 2018, the Historical Society of Michigan presented him with a State History Award in the category of "Education: Educator" in recognition of his outstanding work in African-American history education. The following month, he was honored by the Michigan Legislature and Governor Rick Snyder with a State of Michigan Special Tribute Award.

These days Darden feels a sense of urgency to get his artwork and collection in order. So, before this old cowboy rides off into the sunset, he’s saddled up with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, which has been cataloging the items in his collection, and with the Black Arts & Cultural Center in hopes his life’s work won’t gallop away and be “stored somewhere people can’t see it.

"I want it to be in a museum so people can see history for themselves. I want it to last and be preserved for future generations.”

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Ride into History

If your organization is interested in showcasing Murphy Darden’s Black Cowboy Exhibit, contact the Black Arts & Cultural Center at 269-349-1035 or via email at info@blackartskalamazoo.org.