By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Facing a raging bull, Bill Pickett sat on his horse starring at the ½ ton beast and mumbled, “What’s gonna happen, gonna happen.”
As his horse galloped toward the bull at a high speed, the cowboy hopped off of his horse onto the bull, grabbed the animal by its horns pulling it to the ground, and bit its lip to subdue it.
Just as Pickett invented the art of bulldogging to gain control of a bull, historians have attempted to bulldog the contributions of black cowboys that date back to cattle herding tribes in Western Africa who were captured and enslaved in the 17th century.
Hollywood and history books have whitewashed the taming of the Wild West, omitting the role of black cowboys.
Their stories have been plagiarized. Their horse riding skills were overlooked. And, their herding techniques underestimated.
The faces of Pickett, Bass Reeves, Nat Love, Bob Lemmons and other African Americans who made up over 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys in the old West were replaced in movies with Clayton Moore, John Wayne, James Arness and Charles Bronson.
"I went to the movies and saw most of the cowboys (my grandmother) mentioned, but no Bill Pickett and no black cowboys at all, not even in disparaging roles,” Frank S. Phillips, Jr., Pickett’s great grandson wrote in the forward of the book, Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett. “There was no mention of black cowboys in the wild west magazines or in any of the western novels. I could not understand why."
Although black cowboys are primarily unseen in movies, their legacy continues in black rodeos such as the Midwest Invitational Rodeo that will take place on Saturday, June 15 at 7 pm at the Wayne County Fairgrounds, 10871 Quirk Road, Belleville, Mich. 48111.
“Our goal is to show the community Black cowboys do exist and to provide a quality show along with education of our untold heritage and contribution to the old west,” Carolyn Emmett, one of rodeo organizers, said. “We are a not for profit show. Money is not our goal - bringing your city a good, quality rodeo is our goal. Because of this, we need the support of the community. There are not many true cowboys in Detroit, which means they have to come here from many other states.”
Whereas bulls might have been color blind, the ugly shades of racism that were clearly seen during the Jim Crow era hogtied black cowboys and prevented them from participating in mainstream rodeos. They were forced to form the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association in 1947 and to organize their own events.
“Some of our first black cowboys who tried to compete in the early years were subjected to such discrimination to the point that they banned together and created their own all black rodeos. Some of which today are still ongoing. The Roy Leblanc Invitational Rodeo in Okmulgee, Oklahoma is in its 75th year. Another one is the Boley Oklahoma Rodeo in its 105th year,” Emmett added. “Cowboys like Jesse Stahl, a bareback rider, rode his bucking horse backwards. With one hand, he waved at the prejudiced judges, who had made him get on three different horses at one rodeo for one reason or another. These are a very few of the prominent men of color who paved the way.”
Following tradition, the Midwest Invitational Rodeo showcases the skills of black cowboys in various competitive events.
“Our events are for the most part like any other rodeo,” Emmett added. “We have the tie down calf roping, steer wrestling and bull riding. For women, there are barrel racing and steer undecorating events. We also have two junior events for youth ages 12 and under – junior breakaway and barrel racing. There is also the fast paced relay race. This event is for our local riding clubs. A four person team rides their horse around the arena in break neck speed, passing a baton between them. The team with the fastest time wins the money pot. This event is a crowd favorite!”
While the Midwest Invitational Rodeo offers a fun-filled evening for families, Emmett hopes attendees will walk away with an educational message as well.
“Black cowboys do exist, and are as talented as the cowboys one may see on television. We strive to encourage our youth to be whatever it is they choose to be. If they want to be a cowboy, c’mon, we'll show you,” she added. “But most of all, we want them to know we are still here. We are all just like most people. We don’t all live on farms. We all work and have other jobs. Some are doctors, lawyers, nurses, fireman, cooks, etc. But most of all, we are very real.”
Just as the black cowboys today are real and deserve recognition, those of old are equally worthy of respect.
“If a man can’t go out in a blaze of glory, he can at least go with dignity,” Nat “Dead Wood Dick” Love wrote in his autobiography.
So, don’t bulldog the contributions of black cowboys. Saddle up and ride over to support the Midwest Invitational Rodeo. For additional information, visit www.midwest-invitational.com or call (918)758-8060.