Jim and Gloria Austin are preserving the American West’s inclusive history through the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum.
by Lyssette Williams
In Netflix’s spring 2021 release “Concrete Cowboy,” actor Byron Bowers’ character “Rome”decries Hollywood’s erasure of people of color from America’s history.
“Fifty percent of all cowboys were Black, brown, bronze or some other color!” Rome says to his friends while sitting around a late-night bonfire in front of their Philadelphia stable.
While the movie is a fictionalization of African American urban horse-riding culture, though inspired by true tales, Rome’s numbers are not far off from the truth. More than 1,500 miles from Philadelphia stands a museum dedicated to celebrating the rich cultural diversity that made the expansion of America into the West iconic.
“Around 40 percent of cowboys and cowgirls in the American West were Black, Indigenous and people of color,” said Jim Austin, co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. “The museum’s mission is to offer the visitor a true and complete historical perspective that added to the uniqueness and longevity of American Western culture. One of our mottos is: ‘You can be a good cowboy or cowgirl regardless of your skin color.’ ”
“Unfortunately, we get a one-sided and erroneous image of the American West from movies,” Museum Co-Founder Gloria Austin added. “The American West we celebrate through popular media would not have been possible without people of color with various ancestry participating in western expansion of the American frontier.”
The National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum is just a short drive from APHA’s headquarters in the heart of the Stockyards, making it easy to transition between both stops in the historic district.
Bold Vision from Bold People
To get a better understanding of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum, you need to meet the amazing people who transformed the idea into a reality. Formerly known as the National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame, the museum opened its doors to the public in 2001. It’s the brainchild and ongoing passion project of husband-and-wife team Jim and Gloria Austin. Much of the Austins’ personal money, time, blood and sweat have been poured into the museum to make what was once a small, bold idea blossom into vivid reality.
Jim calls himself a farm boy with a city twist. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, he grew up in New Jersey after his family relocated in 1963.
“I still spent the summers in North Carolina on my Uncle Bernard’s farm,” Jim said. “I worked on the farm feeding the pigs, picking tobacco and worked in the grocery store my uncle owned. I got my work ethic from him, and my uncle’s devotion to public service inspired me to give back as well. It was a great life!”
After graduating from Howard University in 1977, Jim accepted a job at American Express,which moved him to Texas. Once there, he quickly fell in love with the landscape, the lifestyle and, most importantly, his better half, Gloria. With his retired parents and adult siblings eventually joining him in Texas, deciding to stay was easy. In 1981, Jim opened Austin Company Commercial Real Estate.
A native of Brownwood, Texas, Gloria did not grow up on a farm or with horses, but she’s found her connection to the Western lifestyle through working closely with the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and in her role as executive director of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum.
“I have a lot of respect for horses,” Gloria said, “especially the American Paint Horse. They are beautiful, graceful animals with an immense power to heal humans through therapy and companionship.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.