Murphy Darden loves cowboys. He and his twin brother are now 87. But when they were kids, they used to pay ten cents at the movie theater to see stars like Roy Rogers and Buck Jones rope cattle.
Darden hadn’t heard of any black cowboys until one day while he was working at the Parchment Paper Mill (formerly known as K.V.P).
“I was in the restroom washing my hands and the radio come on for Black History month. And they said…they called the name of Bill Pickett. And say, ‘Oh, Bill Pickett, one of the first black cowboys that did bulldogging,’” Darden remembers.
“He would ride on his horse, jump off his horse, catch the bull by the horn and throw him with his teeth.”
Darden was hooked. He started collecting everything he could having to do with black cowboys.
“And from the black cowboys began slaves on horses. I began to collect buffalo soldiers, getting the history of buffalo soldiers. Getting the history of slave documents. All of this history that I didn’t learn in school because Mississippi school—back then we didn’t learn a lot about black history," he says.
So Darden took it upon himself to collect that history. Every room in his house is filled with artifacts as well as Darden’s own historical artwork.
Between his collection and that of his twin brother, Irvin Darden, who collects black baseball player memorabilia—Murphy Darden says he has more than enough items to fill a real museum.
But he says finding an available building has been tough. As Darden gets up in age, he says he worries that he’s running out of time. But he says he just has to find something—this history is too important.
“We got to tell it, we got to show it, and we got to talk about it. So that the young generation can know what we came through,” says Darden.
On the first floor, there’s paintings and artifacts from black cowboys and slaves. Posters of old westerns and pop culture icons like Muhammed Ali. Wood carvings of social justice leaders like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Darden doesn’t just stick to national history – there’s a lot of local history here too. Darden built 3-D models of countless black churches that no longer exist in Kalamazoo. He also recreated the old Parchment Paper Mill and the home of the city’s first black settlers.
“And that house, they burnt that down for fire practice. Oshtemo Township firefighters on Monday burned the 1860 farmhouse that was once home to Enoch Harris and his wife Deborah, the township’s first black settlers and they burnt that house down,” Darden says.
Darden also memorializes a local protest in one of his drawings.
“Picket at the Van Avery Drugstore in 1963 demand that the store hire African American workers,” Darden reads off of a newspaper clipping.
Down in the basement, Darden has things set up more like a museum with arguably twice as much stuff. Here Darden has museum quality glass displays. One reenacts a slave trade, another a depression-era home.
“Over here is a showcase of army stuff, war stuff. 51st Massachusetts and buffalo soldiers’ artifacts: boots, flags, jackets,” Darden says.
Toward the end of the basement loop, Darden highlights black inventors.
“Garrett Morgan—the stop light…traffic light we call it now. And if you look at it, every time you see a traffic light. Who invented that? Black man. Morgan, Garrett Morgan. And the gas mask, he also invented that too,” says Darden.
You can visit Murphy Darden’s African American Cowboy Historical Museum by calling 269-382-0245.