Mike in a CNN News Article
“America’s black cowboys fight for their place in history”
Mike in Phoenix Magazine
reprinted from Phoenix Magazine
Augusta State University (now Augusta University)
Volume 4, Number 3, Pages 12-15, Summer 1998
by Michele Douglass
I was really nervous on my first day at Augusta State. Coming from a small town in New Jersey, I knew I would be exposed to totally new experiences in the South, and I hoped that I could make the necessary adjustments and do well my first quarter. But I really didn’t know what to expect.
My first class was American History. In the past, I hadn’t been very fond of the subject–too many names and dates for a person who couldn’t remember what she ate for dinner last night. So naturally I sat in the first row in an attempt to make myself enjoy history, or at least make the professor think I was enjoying history. Then the professor walked in. He was a black man over six feet tall, wearing a black cowboy hat, white cowboy shirt, and black dungarees. A black knotted bandanna was tied around his neck as he sported a big, shiny buckled belt. His black Dingo boots made the only sound in the room as he walked across the floor. I think every chin in the classroom dropped to the floor!
He hung his hat on a hook near the chalkboard, revealing a low cut, salt and peppered afro. “Good Morning. My name is Professor Searles.” He said with a big Texas grin. “But most people just call me Cowboy Mike!” Then he began to give information about famous black cowboys and Native Americans who made positive contributions to the development of the West. Not only did he bring the flavor of the West into the classroom by his manner of dress, but he also brought pieces of history that I had never been taught.
“Generally when students take an American history course they get broad bushes of major themes and ideas.” Searles said. “In many cases what’s going on as it relates to a given group is omitted. Maybe not out of a lack of concern but sometime there’s just a lack of space. The overall impression for many students is that they get no real sense of what happens to some groups. What happened to the Native Americans…or to black folks? That’s because those folks are only introduced at critical moments… like during slavery. But you don’t get a sense of connection. When you teach a class that specializes, you get a chance to give students the connections.”
When Cowboy Mike began teaching about blacks like Estevanico, who was a part of the Spanish exploration of Florida in 1528, my concept of all blacks arriving on slave ships was shattered. Professor Searles has been giving students “the connections” at ASU for about six years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University and achieved a master’s degree in African American History form Howard University in Washington, D.C. He began to incorporate his knowledge of black cowboys into his lesson plans at Bogg’s Academy where he taught eighth-grade Social Studies; and by the time he transferred to Hephzibah Middle School, it became a regular part of his curriculum.
“I remember when I bought my first cowboy hat. I was taking students from Bogg’s Academy in Georgia on a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. We stopped at a little backwoods shop in North Carolina and I bought a brand-new hat. When I put it on my head, one of the students told me, ‘you don’t want to wear that hat. It makes you look like a cowboy.’ From that point on, I began to gather articles and books so I could incorporate the history of black cowboys into my teachings.”
The hat was purchased about 20 years ago. It’s old now–complete with a hole in the top where it was eaten by moths. Professor Michael Searles still wears it sometimes. In the past he told students that the hole was made by a bullet!!
It is in this same manner that some books and scholars presented history in the past. “I feel there are a lot of myths in history,” he said. “Part of the myth is that Western history is a white experience. When asking students how many knew about blacks in the west, I found that none of them replied.”
Cowboy Mike went on to explain that many people have very fuzzy notions about what the west was really like. That’s because black cowboys aren’t in the history books. “People didn’t think they had much merit. Black folks didn’t fit the mold so they were excluded from it, although blacks were prevalent in the west…. All people of color were excluded from history of the west, but nowadays scholars recognize the presence of blacks and minorities in the west. I try to introduce those ideas so people can get off of what is often very narrow thinking.”
Cowboy Mike teacher history in a way that people from every culture can appreciate the development of our country. All students are more likely to be roped in by the information offered by Professor Searles’ history classes.
“What I seek to do when I teach a history class is to teach that history is much more complex and has many more aspects than what has been previously taught. There are a lot of things in American History that people just don’t talk about. That’s the value of the courses like the one I teach. Students begin to say, ‘oh! it’s a little broader than what I thought: And oh!…it looks like this has been somewhat sanitized: Or… oh! they try to portray Americans in a somewhat more heroic light than in fact they really were.’ So that’s a plus value to understand the fuller implications of history.”
According to History Department Head Dr. Ed Cashin, Professor Searles is totally committed to giving students a fuller understanding of Western History. “I have seldom seen anybody as dedicated as he is to teaching. He is continually going on speaking trips to various places. He seems to have an inexhaustible supply of energy and good humor.”
Not only does Professor Searles make presentations to many different schools in the area about black cowboys and minorities in the West, but he often goes the extra mile, or miles, out West to get his details first hand.
A few years ago he traveled out West to do interviews. “It was also a lot of fun because I got to interview about 40 black cowboys. A few cowgirls too, but mainly cowboys. I asked them ‘What was life like at different ages and what kind of work did you do?’ I got some great interviews.” Although several of the people that Cowboy Mike interviewed have passed away, the interviews are very important to the preservation of history. “One of the fellows was especially important because right now I’m doing some work with the George Historical Ranch which is in Richmond, Texas near Houston, and the fellow I interviewed had a great-grandfather who worked on that ranch. His father had been very active in the Fort Bend area and had a close connection to people who worked on the ranch as well. It was important to the ranch because the information I got about him can be used to develop an understanding of what it was like to be a black cowboy living on that ranch at the time.”
Cowboy Mike has found interviewing to be a great opportunity to hear about history from the horse’s mouth, but he’s also learning a few things first hand. And while most people have experienced playing cowboys and Indians as a child, Cowboy Mike is one of the lucky people who doesn’t have to stop.
“During February, I went on the Prairie View Trail Ride, which is the oldest black trail riding association in Texas. As a prelude, the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show has trail riders come from all over East and South Texas to Houston. They spend the night in a park and in the morning they have a big parade. Being on a seven-day trail ride was just a wonderful experience. We would ride all day, then we’d water and feed the horses and let them graze for the night. There was a wonderful cook there, and we’d eat and have activities going on.”
“During the day we’d stop at elementary schools and talk to teachers, and groups of students would come out and ask questions. A lot of interesting people were on that trail ride. You’re riding every day and you’re talking to a lot of different people and sharing your experiences. It was wonderful.”
The summer months are even more exciting for Cowboy Mike. After school is out, he gets cabin fever and never lets the grass grow under his Dingos. He’s out of town before sundown, partner! Next stop…Colorado.
“Colorado has a lot of mountains and mountain streams…. It’s very picturesque. When the leaves are changing to golden and yellow as the Aspen leaves do, and the leaves are shimmering, it creates an interesting kind of effect. It’s just a great thing. You feel like you’re next to heaven… Sometimes you get caught up in the spirit of that kind of experience. I thought what would it be like to immerse myself in a mountain stream…so I did! The water was extremely cold. It was a shocking kind of experience.”
“A lot of things you do when you’re young have no place in your adult life. I’m very fortunate to be able to do in life, as a profession, those things you enjoyed in your youth. I’m here from 9:00 am until 6:00 pm and sometimes on weekends. This is a second home to me. It would be terrible to not enjoy your second home.”
History Professor Lee Ann Caldwell said that Professor Searles is “…like a breath of fresh air every morning. He’s one of the happiest people I know. I asked him if he ever got down about things. He thought for a while and said, ‘No, I have too many blessings.’ I think that’s a marvelous approach to life. He’s one of those people who sees life in a positive way and carries it all the way through.”
Not only is Professor Searles painting a historical picture of the West that people of every ethnic background can enjoy, but he’s also showing how much fun it can be when you dedicate your life to doing what you really love. No wonder he always seems happy.
Cowboy Mike with bubbling laughter said, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than stand in front of a classroom and teach. I should be paying ASU for letting me have so much fun.”