How America's Black Cowboy Population Is Fighting Erasure - Pacific Standard

How America's Black Cowboy Population Is Fighting Erasure

Today's black cowboys are aiming to set the historical record straight—and teach a younger generation to ride.
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“She’s coming!” California sunlight filters through the dust hanging over the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo as friends and relatives get ready to watch 13-year-old Kysariah Brinson compete in the junior barrel-racing contest. When the announcer calls her name, Brinson — who also goes by K.K. — bursts into the ring with a surge of speed, her cowboy hat cocked low over her forehead. A box in the stands filled with classmates and families from her riding program, Spurred Up, explodes in whoops and hollers. Brinson remains focused: Long black braids stream behind her as she leads her horse around a trefoil of red and yellow barrels, her face taut with concentration.

With the raucous crowd, sunny arena, and pervasive scent of warm hay, this is a typical moment at a small-town rodeo. Except for one thing: All the contestants and nearly everyone in the stands are black. The Bill Pickett Invitational markets itself as the only all-black nationally touring rodeo in the United States. Every year, it threads its way through several of the country’s more deeply rooted black communities, including Memphis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.

Here, at this stop just outside of Oakland, black culture intermingles with conventional country style. Cowboy hats are de rigueur. In the concessions area, vendors hawk catfish, fried alligator, frog legs, and peach cobbler. Next door, Reid’s Records sells coloring books that tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, all-black army regiments that fought for the U.S. in the 19th century. Contestants vie for prizes in bulldogging, calf roping, and bareback riding to a soundtrack blending backcountry zydeco and blues with DJ Khaled and Biggie Smalls. During the opening Grand Entry procession, riders of all ages saunter around the arena on brightly braided saddles. Their horses amble and buck to the percussive strains of 2Pac’s “California Love.”

Though heroes of color are virtually absent from the classic Western story, some historians estimate that up to one-third of cowboys during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were black. Their legacy continues in communities bringing attention to cowboys of color across the country today. In Texas, black-cowboy trail rides reportedly attract thousands of attendees; in Queens, New York, riders sometimes compete with traffic. Here in Oakland, black cowboys teaching kids like Brinson to ride say they hope to restore texture and richness to a whitewashed past — and pass down values they believe will lead to brighter futures.

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The Oakland stop of the Bill Pickett rodeo always begins the same way. A rider carrying an American flag races through the gates of the Rowell Ranch rodeo grounds as they fill with the swelling chords of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song is followed by “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — also known as the black national anthem. This year, as the final chords die away, the rodeo announcer includes Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, black men shot by police officers just weeks before in Minnesota and Louisiana, among his list of community members lost during the year.

The Bill Pickett, named for a black cowboy who competed in some of the country’s earliest rodeos, celebrates a widely erased history known in academic circles as the Black West. Documents from the late 19th century suggest that at least 25 percent (and by some estimates as much as 35 percent) of cowboys were black. Many were ex-slaves who had come with their former masters to Texas and the Oklahoma territories; others were freedmen from the Deep South whose agricultural experience made them good candidates for work in the growing cattle industry, according to Roger Hardaway, a history professor at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

The list of black cowboy legends is long. James Beckwourth, a trader and mountain man for whom the Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Nevada is named, was among their number. Billy the Kid is said to have ridden with at least three black cowboys in the Lincoln County War. Ben Hodges “saved Wyatt Earp’s life, and he was blacker than me,” modern black cowboy Booker Emery once told an Oakland Tribune reporter.

By the time the Oklahoma territories were established in 1889, they had an estimated 10,000 black inhabitants. Black cowboys “wrangled horses, drove chuck wagons, rode point and drag, and fought Indians,” Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones write in 1965’s The Negro Cowboys, still considered an authoritative source on Black West history by black cowboys and historians alike.

The 20th century saw the cattle industry become more reliant on railroads to move its wares,and available jobs for cowboys waned.As the era of cowboys faded, a new genre of books, television shows, and movies stepped in to mythologize them — and almost always left black cowboys out. Movies of the new era, including classic Westerns, “never put a black person in a movie with a strong personality standing up for what they believed in because they wouldn’t get any money out of the white South,” Hardaway says.

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In Westerns in particular, “everybody thought the cowboys were these virile white guys,” he says. TV and movie producers across Hollywood were hesitant to challenge such assumptions. While some movies included brief appearances by black musicians or personalities like Lena Horne, producers could choose to cut those sequences depending on the racial make-up of the audience where a film was showing (such was the case in 1946’s Ziegfeld Follies, starring Horne, in some locations).

For modern black cowboy Andre Alporter, the erasure of the Black West was about “keeping the ideology of a selected group of people in the forefront of the population — of being the greatest, who discovered everything, who invented everything, who thought of everything. But the deeper you dig in history, the blacker it gets.”

Alporter belongs to the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, a 40-plus-year-old group whose stated goal is to educate children and adults about that lost story. The organization held its first annual parade in 1975. Newspaper articles on the parades that followed describe major affairs featuring myriad horses, floats, marching bands, and high school drum corps loping through the streets of West Oakland.

Gordon Brown gives pony rides along with Alporter at Oakland Black Cowboy events, leading youngsters in a circle on an aging pony named Michael Jackson. During parades, many locals “are surprised, especially when we go to Oakland, deep in the hood,” he says. “They don’t believe that a black man can ride a horse and own a horse.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Brown. “That’s why I like doing it,” he says: “To show people we here, we out here. We do exist. It’s not all what you see on TV. We was part of it, too, taming the West.”

Between the paddock and the arena at the Bill Pickett rodeo, older men prepare pint-sized cowboys to ride or rope calves. A skinny kid in a sea-green button-down shirt and straw cowboy hat tests his ropes with deft fingers. Next to him, a man is patting his son on the back, murmuring encouraging words; the child eventually mounts his calf but falls quickly and lands hard. A competitor, wearing spangled chaps, has better luck, holding onto the writhing calf for one exceptionally long moment before his own fall. Picking himself up off the dusty ground, he holds his arms up in a gesture of victory.

Many of the men wear black-and-purple or marigold-colored shirts that link them to organizations like the Oakland Black Cowboy Association. Their children, like Brinson the barrel racer, are increasingly involved in programs like Spurred Up in Oakland, or the Brotherhood Riders Youth Club in Stockton. For many in these groups, the cowboy tradition presents an opportunity to teach children to think differently about community history and their place within it.

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Wilbert McAlister, president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, for instance, raised his grandson, Elijha, in the black cowboy tradition after his son was killed in 1991. Elijha started riding at age three and never stopped; among his specialties is helping kids on and off of Michael Jackson at pony rides. Elijha’s mother “knows I don’t mess around, so she knows he’s in a clean environment,” McAlister says. “When he goes out with me she don’t worry.”

Looking to provide that same sort of wholesome environment, the Spurred Up program teaches kids like Brinson to ride and compete in rodeos; they learn to care for horses and about agricultural careers too. The program’s “Cowboy Code,” or rules of etiquette, is based on axioms such as “A cowboy always tells the truth” and “A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.”

Spurred Up founder Odest Logan cites discipline, integrity, and honor as values he’s attempting to instill through his program. “These values, along with the others, have been lost by our youth growing up in our communities of violence and gangs,” he writes in Spurred Up’s welcome packet.

There’s much to be learned from riding that goes beyond roping or trotting — lessons Logan hopes will apply far beyond the paddock. “It’s about understanding the relationship between rider and horse — the participation of both of them in ridership,” he says. “You can be a rider or a passenger.” He wants to instill that philosophy — be a rider, not a passenger — in Spurred Up students, who he hopes will learn, through riding lessons and outings to farms and ranches, a commitment to hard work, and maybe even a career.

It’s working, at least on a small scale. One Spurred Up student started with no riding experience but eventually became a team roper on the rodeo circuit. He’s now a farrier in the Central Valley. Brinson says she wants to become a veterinarian and work with horses when she’s older. In the Spurred Up booth at the Bill Pickett rodeo, a small boy can be seen turning to his mother, shaking her arm, and saying, “I wanna do it, mama!”

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As the rodeo winds down, friends congratulate Brinson’s grandparents, who have driven out from Daly City, across San Francisco Bay, for the occasion. Her grandmother, Nadira Mambuki, grew up on a farm near the Oregon border, making friends with the chickens, she says, and learning to ride a horse by age five.

Mambuki went looking for a horse club, hoping to share that love of animals with her granddaughter. “What it means to us is discipline,” she says. “[Brinson] stays out of trouble, out of boys’ ways. Her grades have improved drastically — from Cs and Ds to As and Bs. She tried out basketball, gymnastics, and modeling, but now she told us that she found her passion. They’re preparing her to be a leader.”

As the crowd dissipates, the riders come out to mingle with the audience, making dusty loops around the trucks and trailers. On her horse, Brinson is surrounded by a swirl of younger kids — leaning forward in fascination or standing back in trepidation — many of whom are meeting horses for the first time.

Not far away, two boys of about 11 huddle behind a vendor tent with a length of neon-pink rope. “That’s not even how you do it — rope them cows and stuff,” one says to the other. “Here, let me show you.”

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