Cowboys of Color
A History of the Modern Black Rodeo Cowboy by Abe Morris and Don Russell
80 images. 136 pages, 12 Interviews with Cowboys
The history of the black cowboy begins in the 1820’s as slaves were brought into Texas from Louisiana and Mississippi to work the large ranches that were being created from Mexican land grants. The earliest black cowboys developed their skills from working on these ranches and learning skills from the Mexican vaqueros. After the Civil War, black cowboys continued working the ranches as free men but promotion to top hand or foreman rarely occurred. In this era of racism and segregation black cowboys could only build a herd of cattle or own land through the graces of the dominate white ranch owners. It did happen in a few cases, but mainly they were forced to work at the lowest levels of ranch life.
Perhaps less than 100 black cowboy histories remain from the earliest days. The stories are told through the remembrances of their families, the ranch histories they labored on, and the WPA oral histories recorded in the 1930’s. The stories of men like Bose Ikard (fictionalized in Lonesome Dove) would ride the Goodnight-Loving Trial with Charles Goodnight’s money in his saddlebag from the sale of the herd (no one would think to rob a black man), of Robert Lemmons( the original horse whisper), and Daniel Webster Wallace (the first millionaire black rancher) all have a spirit of greatness despite the many hardships these men faced. These stories are rare, as was the big money Bill Pickett made while riding in Wild West shows along side his friend Will Rodgers, yet he wasn’t allowed to participate in the rodeo competition because he was too good and he was black.
The integration of the Rodeo seems slower than other major sporting events. Where as Baseball and Football integrated in the late 40’s, it took rodeo into the early 60’s before minorities were fully allowed into sport. This can only be due to the southern racist conservatism that existed in Texas and Oklahoma at the time and the fact that this sport was controlled by white men of this mindset. Pioneering black cowboys like bull rider Myrtis Dightman, Leon Coffee (rodeo clown), Charlie Sampson (1st African American Bull Riding Champion) and Cleo Hearn paved the way to open the sport up. Rodeo has come a long way and has greatly improved in the areas of race relations. The Cowboys of Color Rodeo continues to work for brighter future for minorities in rodeo, but gaps still exist as Native American, Hispanic, African American and Women are still under represented at the professional level.