African-American Auctioneer Breaks Racial Boundaries - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

African-American Auctioneer Breaks Racial Boundaries

January 18th, 2019 SanTan Sun News
African-American Auctioneer Breaks Racial Boundaries

By Colleen Sparks

Managing Editor

A savvy, smooth-talking auctioneer with a strong sense of humor, charisma and a background as an actor and musician is breaking boundaries as one of the nation’s first African American auctioneers.

Rowlan Hill of Chandler, co-owner of Blue Leaf Estate Auctions, has sold almost everything under the sun including cattle, chickens, geese, cars, TV stands, sofas, ash trays and sports jerseys in his 33 years as an auctioneer.

Considered a world-champion auctioneer, the native Californian studied music at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and pursued a career as an actor and musician prior to getting serious about his current craft.

Hill works his magic trying to sell a variety of items through estate auctions as co-owner of Blue Leaf Estate Auctions.

But Hill, 55, does not consider himself a trailblazer in terms of paving the way for other African Americans in his industry even though there are only about 50 in the country.

“I would say I’m just me,” he said. “There are quite a few African-American auctioneers who call me because I was one of the first recognized African-American auctioneers.

“It all comes back to ability,” he explained. “When you’re good enough, they’ll hire you. It has nothing to do with color. Across all lines, be it theater, be it music, sports, from hockey to football. You name if; if you’re good, you’re good and they’ll accept you. My forefathers, they were the trailblazers.

“They opened the doors to let me into the school with the other kids. We became friends and we kind of forgot about all that stuff in the past because we kind of became friends and grew up together. They fought and did the sit-ins so we could vote, could ride in public transportation. Those are the trailblazers. Those are the ones that opened the doors.”

Rowlan and co-owner Stephanie Garcia work three to four auctions a week across the state and sometimes in California, hosting the events in the homes to sell furniture, sports memorabilia, televisions, unusual figurines and other things.

Often the people selling them are downsizing and moving so they need to get rid of some things.

Hill also performs many auctions for charities, including one with TV personality Tara Hitchcock, to raise money for Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that partners traditional students with students who have disabilities.

Hill started working for his friend’s father’s auctions, helping set things up when he was about 16 or 17 years old in California. After his parents divorced, he said his friend’s parents took him under their wing and raised him like their own son.

“One day he said, ‘Hey Rowlan, sell those chairs,’” Hill said. “I got up and sold the chairs. I was bit by the auction bug.”

After graduating from high school, Hill attended a junior college in California and then his former high school band director connected him with the music department head at Northern Arizona University.

Hill headed to NAU to study music as he played tenor and baritone saxophones. While he loved the college and got a scholarship, he decided a couple years later to return to California.

Hill attended the Dick Grove School of Music to train as a musician learning to play studio gigs. In his early 20s he also tried to pursue an acting career, but he said it did not go far.

Hill said that as a musician he “sucked” and was “bad” and needed to earn money. So, he started working at some auctions around Los Angeles.

He went to a hog sale in Ontario, California, but said the auctioneer was “really rude to me.” The next day he went to the producers at an auction in a cattle yard and said a man there asked if he was an auctioneer.

When the man found out he had worked for his friend’s father, he gave Hill a job.

“I had sold and practiced,” Hill said. “I didn’t go to auctioneer school. I had the chance, but I didn’t know things like the market, how much they should sell for, the difference between a heifer and a steer, a bull, a calf.”

But he caught on quickly and worked selling cattle for about four years before switching to automobile auctions.

He sold cars at auctions in Los Angeles, Denver, Miami, Indianapolis and, eventually, Arizona for 25 years.

Hill had a chance to work with two African-American car dealers, whom he described as “movers and shakers.” A job working for an auto auction in Tolleson led him to the Valley.

He worked there about seven years and began doing charity auctions to help the Boys & Girls Clubs and Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald’s First Down Fund. One day he got a call asking him to perform at an estate auction and, he said, “from there it just grew.”

With Blue Leaf Estate Auctions, Hill said he starts at the front of a home selling things, working his way through rooms as potential buyers follow.

“I tell people everything sells,” he said. “I’ve sold a freezer that had meat in it, Omaha steaks. You just never know what you’re going to find in these houses. People have traveled the world and brought things back.”

Garcia organizes the events and she and Hill have a son together: Preston Hill, who is 12 years old. Hill also has a son, Ira Hill, 22, a singer, who is working on a master’s degree at NAU, whom Garcia helped raise.

Bidders can find great bargains at auctions, such as a high-end dining room table for $1,000 or $2,000.

In an auction in Sun City, an eight-millimeter movie projector in “pristine condition” with movies accompanying it was sold, Hill said. He saw a couple from Wisconsin furnish their whole house with furniture they bought at auctions.

Garcia said “it’s a lot of fun” working with Hill at the auctions.

“He’s pretty energetic and auction day is always fun,” she said. “It’s like he’s on stage. He’s up there and he’s in his element. He goes for it. A lot of people come for the entertainment. He’s passionate about it. It’s what he loves to do.”

Garcia praised Hill for handling incidents when racists show up.

“I’ve seen him go through a lot of situations where you can see where racism still exists and people are not very open-minded,” she said. “He’s out there knocking those doors down. There’s a lot of people that recognize it.

“He gets a lot of phone calls all the time from people wanting to learn. It’s pretty awesome to see him just plowing away for people. He is a true auctioneer. He can sell anything.”

Chelsea Robson, a Queen Creek singer whose parents owned the now closed Rockin’ R Ranch, a Western dinner theater in Mesa, praised Hill for helping her and her family when the venue closed last fall.

Robson said she and her parents had contacted other auctioneers but none seemed interested.

“Rowlan was the one that seemed very interested and kept saying, ‘I’ll help you guys,’” Robson said. “We were able to get quite a bit of promotion for not only our last sets of shows but also the auction itself.

“Because of what he was able to do, we were able to have over 270 people check in to the auction itself. Over 420 items were sold. Once he started auctioneering, he went for at least four hours without stopping. I was amazed.”

Things she thought would have to be thrown away were purchased.

“We would not have been able to do it without him,” Robson said. “He was very nice, a professional person, very personal too. He’s very charismatic. I just think that he is an entrepreneur. He knows that in order to get his job done he’s gotta serve others.”

Rowlan sits on the board of directors for the World Automobile Auctioneers Professional Association and the Cache-Heart Foundation. He is the president of the League of Professional Auctioneers and is often a guest instructor at one of the nation’s leading auctioneer schools in Clearlake, Iowa.

He has won the International Livestock Championship in Calgary, Canada, and is the 2005 Pacific Open Auctioneer Pro Division Champion and the 2007 Arizona State Auctioneer Champion. He is also a 2006 inductee to the World Wide Auctioneers Hall of Fame Hall of Champions.

Hill said he does tell his sons about the realities of discrimination. His children are half African-American and half Mexican-American.

“I tell my boys that there’s a possibility that you may get profiled when you’re driving or out, walking through the mall,” he said. “’Don’t look the part. Pull your pants up, comb your hair.’ I believe individualism, but I also believe in looking respectable. Be who you are, be good at what you do and you don’t have to worry about it. ‘There’s some idiots out there, but don’t worry about them.’

“You just worry about yourself and do what you do. For anybody, not just African-Americans or Hispanics, you have to know your rights. I tell my boys, ‘You’ve gotta know the rules.’ They both have read the Constitution.”

Hill loves living in Chandler.

“Chandler is a melting pot,” he said. “Chandler is Seattle South. You go to the stores and you see everything from Indian, you see Asian, you see black and white, just everybody here and a mixture. You see black men with white women. Chandler is very embracing of cultures.”

Hill also loves being an auctioneer.

“I’ve been an auctioneer pretty much my whole life and I tell people, ‘I’ve never worked a day in my life,’” he said. “I love it. I’d work for free. I like the excitement about it, the art form. I like selling. I like helping. We lead with our hearts. It’s not all about the money, it’s about helping people.”