This summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death brought forth emboldened and outraged demonstrators from across the nation and the globe. Some of the most compelling and shared imagery from these marches showed Black protesters on horseback. Brianna Noble from Oakland CA was unforgettable taking her horse Dapper Dan into the city streets, and plainly expressed what we were all thinking “You can’t ignore a big old pretty horse with a black woman on it.” Other riders, including a group called the Nonstop Riders from Houston Texas, Floyd’s hometown, and the Compton Cowboys participated in marches and demonstrations for social justice in their respective cities. Striking as these images are, the reactions to them are significant too-  a lot of surprise and confusion around the notion that there are, in fact, Black cowboys when the truth is there always have been.

Brianna Noble in Oakland, Photo by Shira Bezalel

Black people played an active role in all facets of cowboy culture since its nineteenth century beginnings; riding, herding and roping of cattle, rodeo, and entertainment like Wild West shows, music, and Western movies. Unfortunately, their presence, like that of Native Americans (unless they are cast as villains), Mexicans, and other people of color, has been eclipsed by generation after generation representing the archetypal Cowboy as a white American male.

The cowboy, like Western history in general, is a tangle of fact and myth that will never unravel. And the boundaries between truth and fiction can be blurry; working cowboys might become performers later in life, the historical record is embellished with legends, exaggerations (sometimes thanks to the participants themselves) and decades of Hollywood retellings. Westerns have cast cowboys as heroes and have been a means for this nation to tell stories about itself, stories that might express noble ideals while reinforcing pernicious damaging ones. James Baldwin, one of the twentieth century’s most eloquent critics of popular culture recalled the disconnection he felt watching Western movies as an African American boy:

“It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

Western fictions have ignored the brutal realities of conquest and settler colonialism, but have also been sites to explore social issues, and outlets for creativity within an accessible pop culture framework. If we as a culture can be open to the fantasy of the Western genre why not the reality of seeing a Black cowboy or cowgirl?  Interrogating that disconnect- where the surprised reaction comes from – means considering the history of Black cowboys, as well as their present living culture, while also challenging the ideological structures that have limited their visibility and kept them out of the history books.

A huge barrier in seeing cowboys of color is a holdover from a time when entertainment was essentially segregated. The music industry divided Black and white artists and markets, and the film industry focused money and resources on stories and stars to appeal to a “mainstream” (ie. white middleclass) audience. One of the most famous fictional cowboys of the mid-twentieth century The Lone Ranger, took inspiration form the life of an African American lawman, deputy US Marshall Bass Reeves. In this case the man was compelling enough to inspire a media sensation, but only if his identity was erased and a white actor took his place. The Western genre was extremely popular, and there were Black Westerns going back to the silent era. Bill Pickett, a beloved rodeo champion, starred in The Bull Dogger and the Crimson Skull, and by the 1930s, when sound was included, a handsome Herb Jeffries starred in The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range. Representations and pop culture interpretations aren’t history and they aren’t supposed to be, but the imagery put into the world, who’s included and who’s excluded shapes our understanding of it.

There’s no official consensus on how many black cowboys there were, pre-and post-civil war records suggest anywhere from 5000 to 9000, while other historians lean towards the assumption that one in four cowboys in the US was Black. Their backgrounds were varied; some, like Nat Love, had been born into slavery and sought opportunities in the West to go beyond the subsistence existence of sharecropping or tenant farming. Love’s success as a cattle driver took him to Kansas, Arizona, and Denver, where he was a winning Rodeo competitor. He compiled his Western adventures in an autobiography: “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself in 1907 a significant document because he was able to tell his story in his own words. The possibility to earn a living and explore new territory drew people of all backgrounds to the cowboy lifestyle.  Kenneth Wiggins Porter, an early historian of the Black American West, noted that although discrimination and segregation were very real in cattle country, the lifestyle afforded more opportunities and the chance for a more dignified life than anywhere else in the United States.

Nat Love photographed in 1876 in South Dakota.

Cowboys with exceptional riding and roping skills could bring them to the rodeo ring for the possibility of a cash prize and a big buckle, and Black cowboys were no exception. The most famous would have to be Bill Pickett (1870 -1932) from Texas who invented Bulldogging (wresting a steer to the ground by its horns). Pickett ran his own travelling rodeo with his brothers and later performed with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show alongside white performers, although Pickett’s appearances were often censored and limited on account of his race. George Fletcher (1890 -1973), an Oregon native since the turn of the century, apparently rode so well in the finals of a 1911 saddle bronc riding competition that the crowd nearly rioted when the judges only awarded him second place. When the sport of rodeo was new, unspecified in structure and less professional, competitors were a more honest reflection of the West’s diverse population. As it became a more commercial enterprise, with more media and money involved, riders of color were marginalized, so much so that by 1984 the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was started to give Black competitors their own venue, which continues to this day. Pickett himself wasn’t inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame until 1989, 57 years after his death.

Bill Pickett, inventor of Bulldogging and inspiration behind the Bill Pickett Rodeo

Naturally there were Black cowgirls as well. They rode, worked the ranch, tended cattle like any other Westerner. One of the most notable was Johanna July whose striking appearance, preferring gold earrings, braids, and stacks of beaded and metallic necklaces that reflected her mixed background. July was born around 1857 in Northern Mexico, part of a Black Seminole community that left the Indian territory the US government had forced them into. By 1870 she had returned to the US, settling in Eagle Pass, Texas where she learned to tame and herd horses on her family’s property and took over ranching duties after the death of her father, working stock, and taming wild horses. Another cowgirl, Henrietta William Foster or “Aunt Rittie,” had been born into slavery in Mississippi but spent most of her life in Texas, where she abandoned domestic duties to work alongside the men riding horses and tending cattle. As a free woman she owned her own home, her own cattle, and was respected for her resourcefulness throughout her community.

Joanna July

These names are only a sampling, the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to Black cowboys and cowgirls’ historical contributions, let alone the countless names that have been lost to history. But as important as it is to celebrate them, we need to reckon with why we might not have heard of these names before, thanks to a media culture that too often falls back on biases established in its segregated past and a convention of teaching history selectively, without revision that amounts to nothing more than laziness. Thankfully, as is usually the case, artists, designers, and other creatives are stepping in to fill in the gaps. Walter Thompson-Hernandez’s book The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland, is an intimate take on the past and present of that city’s riders. Many of these same cowboys were included as models in Pyer Moss’s “American Also” ad campaign, where designer Kirby Jean Raymond styled the Compton Cowboys and Baltimore’s Cowgirls of Color. The title “American Also” brings home the point: it’s inclusive and challenging.

Telfar designer Telfar Clemens, never one to shy away from social justice issues in his work, created his “Country” Collection for 2019, that wasn’t explicitly cowboy but had enough details in the mix to signal its Western inspiration at least one jersey dress collaged with images of Black cowboys.  Photographer Ivan McClellan’s work is devoted to documenting cowboys of color from all over the country and Rory Doyle’s ongoing project, “Delta Hill Riders,” documents the black cowboy community of the Mississippi Delta. Documentary filmmaker Charles Perry is presently working on a film titled The Black Cowboy, to add another perspective. Hopefully, thanks to their efforts and many others, the next generation will be taught a more honest understanding of Western history and cowboy culture.

Dig Deeper

 

Read:

Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge / Edited by Bruce A. Glasrud, Michael N. Searles

The Black West / William Loren Katz

Black Cowboys of Texas / Sara R. Massey

Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West / Michel K. Johnson

 

Visit:

Black American West Museum, Denver CO / A small community museum focused on cowboys of color

The Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, CA / Western museum with installations on Black Westerns