"Cowboy attorney" shares stories history books omit

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Attorney Douglas Lewis' life changed the day a client offered to pay him in either money (yawn) - or a horse.

When he told his wife about the offer, she urged him to choose an American Paint horse named Scout.

That led to a love of all things equestrian, which led to an interest in African Americans cowboys in the old West. And both have been passions ever since.

''First came the horse,'' he said. ''Then the new life style.''

For the past 25 years, Lewis has served as director of Student Legal Services at the University of Michigan, where he and his staff represent the interests of U of M students in a variety of legal matters.

The decor of his office in the Michigan Union leaves little doubt of his love for the old West, and the role of African Americans in settling it.

Known for his cowboy hats (the word ''cowboy'' features prominantly in his umich.edu email address) , Lewis is also the volunteer director of the African American West project, a group that educates American students about the role of African Americans in settling the West.

It was the book ''The History of The Buffalo Soldier'' that first piqued his interest in the African American men who served in the American military starting in the mid-1800s. The term was first used in 1871 to reflect the respect that Native Americans had for the soldiers .

One book led to another, and now he loves nothing more than sharing the fascinating stories of the buffalo soldiers with others, especially young students.

''There has been an obvious attempt to eliminate black Americans from the history books,'' he said.

So he and others are doing their parts to complete the story.

As he tells the school kids he visits during Black History Month: ''We're going to tell fun stories about people who lived in the west, and made this country what it is ... There were good guys, there were bad guys, and there were working guys. I'll talk about all of them.''

Whenever he does a presentation, he reminds people that things aren't always what they seem.

''And if we don't learn from the past, we won't get anywhere, he said.

Lewis loves history, but isn't so concerned about the data that would be on a history test, for instance.

It's the African Americans who played a role in the American West - and their struggles - that interest him, he said. It's not particular battles, or dates.

In fact, he said, if you remove the dates, some of their stories could be lifted from a modern day biography or news story.

Lewis serves on the State 4-H Trail Ride committee, is past president of Therapeutic Riding, Inc., and has been active in the Washtenaw County 4-H Horse Leaders' Association.

Lewis, who was born in Windsor, is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and is a past president of the Washtenaw County Bar Association.

His family owns a farm near Milan, which is also home to horses Big Sky, Brandy, and Scooter.

In honor of Black History Month, Lewis is eager to share stories he's written about the Buffalo Soldiers in The Washtenaw County Legal News next month.

"Everyone should know that we were there'' he said.

Published: Mon, Jan 23, 2012

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