Jim Austin is a cowboys fan.
That’s cowboys with a little C.
Austin is a commercial real estate broker and Texas transplant who a few years ago stumbled across an apparent fact of African-American history — that among those who settled the West were significant numbers of blacks. And that few people today are aware of it.
"It touched my heart that nobody had taught me about that in school books," said Austin, who says one-third of the people we think of today as the cowboys and cowgirls of the 19th century were minorities.
"Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians worked together to build this country," he said.
Austin became fascinated by the topic, and nine years ago he and his wife Gloria founded the National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth and filled it with artifacts of the West — paintings, photographs and the memorabilia of such romantic-sounding names as "Stagecoach Mary," "Bulldogger" Bill Pickett, and countless others who rode the range and chased after outlaws.
A few years later, the name was changed to the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum, in order to better capture its purpose. And it’s growing: The museum is in the midst of a $6 million capital-development program that will enable it to move to a bigger building.
The entrepreneur and community activist says he has fully embraced his Texas-ness, and today, Austin occasionally may be found wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, astride a horse.
"I’m what you call a ‘gentleman cowboy,’ " he says with a laugh. "We ride socially."
Still, he’s a long way from the kid who grew up outside in suburban Bloomfield, N.J., and once aspired to be a pharmacist.
"There were four black guys in my high school, of 400 kids," he said. He surprised his parents when he announced he wanted to attend historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C.
"I wanted to learn about my roots," he recalls. And he wanted to study pharmacy because he admired the success of a neighbor, a pharmacist.
Austin jokes that he "jacked around a lot" in high school, but gradually got a handle on where he really belonged in school.
"I decided that it wasn’t that my neighbor was a pharmacist (that I admired), but that he had a business," Austin said. He changed majors and ended up president of the student body at Howard’s business school.
Recruited by American Express after his graduation in 1976, he went to Ft. Worth on a management track that he assumed eventually would lead him back to New York. But he felt at home in Ft. Worth immediately, he said.
"I fell in love with the lifestyle — laid-back, friendly," he said. "If your car breaks down, there are 10 people walking up to you to help you."
One day, a few years into his Ft. Worth life, he found himself buying eight vacant lots for $50 apiece at a courthouse-steps auction for an investment — or so he thought.
"I met a guy there who said, Jim, you know some of those lots are in the bottom of a lake," he recalls. "Turned out to be true."
And the man on the steps turned into a friend and a mentor. …CONTINUED
"Sam McCall had been in the (commercial real estate) business 25 years when I met him," Austin said. He left American Express and set out to learn at McCall’s side. Lesson No. 1, he recalls, was schmoozing.
"He was the best schmoozer in the world," Austin said. "We would be buying people’s property, and we would be in their house for an hour, just shooting the breeze, before he would ask for their business."
But the student learned well, absorbing a lot of things that he said he didn’t hear in business school.
"I’m writing a book, ‘The Early Bird Gets the Worm,’ " Austin said. "You have to be the first one there and the last to leave. And the book will feature How to Schmooze 101, How to Schmooze 102, How to Schmooze 103."
In 1992, he opened his own firm, the Austin Co., which he says has been part of major commercial deals in and around Ft. Worth, involving the Tarrant County Hospital and the county’s health department.
The most memorable one, he says, came eight years ago when he convinced about 50 families to agree to sell their homes in an area where a grocery store would be built. Austin said it was to be the first retail development in the neighborhood in 25 years.
"I worked on it a year and a half," he recalls. "I had to go in there and put all that land together and close 50 transactions at the same time — I had to get 50 families to agree to everything at the same time and on the same day. The closings went on all day long."
Asked which other career path he’d consider if offered an opportunity to make some kind of magical switch, he says he can’t think of an alternative.
"You know, I love real estate," he says. "I get up every morning looking forward to going to work.
"The problem with me is that I got this bug — this museum."
The Western museum isn’t Austin’s only civic endeavor. He previously had been the co-founder of the Renaissance Cultural Center, a nonprofit that promotes educational and cultural activities in an inner-city Ft. Worth neighborhood.
"We’ve given out $400,000 in scholarships to 240 kids," he said.
It was the Renaissance Cultural Center that led to Austin’s interest in cowboys. He was approached by Cleo Hearn, organizer of a series of competitions known as the Cowboys of Color Rodeo. Hearn convinced Austin to affiliate the community center with the rodeo. He also convinced him to take a deeper look at the heritage of black cowboys and other minorities.
They’ve been overlooked by history, Austin says, because of the influence of the movies and their focus on white men on horseback.
Of the many figures spotlighted at the museum, his personal favorite is Bass Reeves, one of the first black deputy United States marshals. Reeves arrested some of the West’s most dangerous criminals after his appointment to the post in the 1870s.
"A lot of people say ‘The Lone Ranger’ was written about him," Austin said.
He says he thinks the message of the "forgotten cowboys," as he calls them, is getting out. Each week, he says, hundreds of schoolchildren troop through the museum, where his wife is executive director. The museum is working on integrating the topic into college-level curricula and numerous projects that will stretch the museum’s reach beyond Ft. Worth.
"I think it’s terrible that this isn’t being taught in all the schools," he said.
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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