Black cowboys and cowgirls have been largely written out of American history—and yet, they have blazed a trail rich in stories of strength and solidarity with the land that leads all the way to today. Rachel Cargle speaks with those who have taken up the mantle of Black horsemanship and who are writing a new future by reclaiming the past.
When Keiara’s face showed up on my screen as she arrived at our interview, her brown skin and soft smile was in beautiful contrast to the metal gates, wooden poles, and rough ground in her background. She was calling in from the ranch, where her day was just getting started. Say hello to the horses, get them fed and their stalls cleaned. She had a full day ahead doing what she loves most, what she’s always known, what she hasn’t seemed to be able to get away from: life as a cowgirl.
“The first horse I ever had for myself was a mare named Starlight. I called her a ‘horse-mom’ because there were so many lessons I learned from her. She was also very patient with me as I was learning to ride. She really took care of me.”
Keiara Wade, a 29-year-old Oakland native, has horsemanship in her blood. Her grandfather spent much of his lifetime on the ranch. Her mother rode horses as well and made sure the love and tradition didn’t end. “I have photos of myself on horseback as young as a year old. Getting a pony was as normal as getting a dog in our family. Me and my cousins all got them as part of growing up.”
Keiara’s story mirrors that of many others among the young Black community who are continuing the legacy of Black horsemanship. Yet, it is a legacy seemingly hidden beneath the layers of the white-washed history of the culture of the American West. The Black cowboy is neither a myth nor an anomaly; rather, the Black cowboy is a figure that is indeed a powerful part of American collective history, which has been so often rewritten with the omission of Black contributions.
A History of Horsemanship
The legacy of Black cowboys has its roots in what so much of Black American memory stems from: the deep trauma of enslavement. In the 1800s, white Americans fled to what was at the time Mexican (previously Spanish) territory in search of cheap land. As they settled and began to develop cattle ranches, they brought with them Black slaves, who quickly learned the various aspects of ranching: hauling hay, breaking in horses, moving large herds. It is recorded that, by 1825, upwards of 25 percent of Texas residents were Black. After the abolition of slavery, this population of skilled Black cowhands came to be in high demand. White ranchers needed (and now paid) Black cowboys to manage their cows, maintain their ranchland, and participate in herding their cattle through various parts of the American landscape.
Ex-slaves also began to work the land for themselves, using the skills cultivated within the confines of slavery to usher themselves into a life of opportunity and agency. All across the West, Black people curated vibrant communities of expertise and Western cowboy culture. Historians estimate that one third of all American cowboys were in fact African-American. In his introduction to the book Black Cowboys of the American West, Bruce Glasrud relays, “The aftermath of the Civil War offered a trail to the West for Blacks in the South and East. Not only was there a long line and tradition of African Americans serving as cowhands immediately after that war, some of those in the South were doing this work even before the war…and others continue to do so in the twenty-first century. The cattle industry provided adventurous people with economic incentives as well as open spaces in the American West. Perhaps Texas A&M professor of History Albert S. Broussard summarized their motives best, ‘working as a cowboy or ranch hand afforded a Black man or woman a higher degree of freedom and autonomy than enjoyed by the typical tenant farmer or sharecropper.’”
The celebrated culture of the Wild West has been prominently displayed on the big screen and in popular fiction. In the late 1930s, stories of the Lone Ranger galloped across the screen, leaving only dust in their trail. But the omission of Black culture and its contributions to the Wild West’s legacy is undeniably clear. With the popularity of white heroes in the American West, the fact that the stories being celebrated were often those of Black cowboys, African-American soldiers, and native men and women was generally hidden.
Popular storylines like that of Deadwood Dick were plucked directly from the real-life story of Nat Love, born in 1854 into slavery on a plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. Following the emancipation of his family, a young and determined Love made his way to Dodge City, Kansas, where he acquired several skills that made him incredibly valuable to local ranchers. In his autobiography, Nat tells the story of a classic Western brawl in a Durango, Colorado saloon in May 1882: “The drinks had been circulating around pretty freely when Cannon and Woods got into a dispute over Cannon’s niece, to whom Woods had been paying attention, much against that young lady’s wish. After some hot words between the men, Woods drew his 45 colt revolver, remarking as he did so, ‘I will kill you,’ and in raising it his finger must have slipped, as his gun went off and the bullet hit a glass of beer in the hand of a man who was in the act of raising it to his lips, scattering the broken glass all over the room, then passing through the ceiling of the saloon. In an instant Woods threw three bullets into Cannon, remarking as he did so, ‘I will kill you, for your niece is my heart’s delight and I will die for her.’ Buck Cannon’s dying words were, ‘Boys, don’t let a good man die with his boots on.’”
Tomahawk, a 1951 film about a white character named Sol Beckworth, was based on the story of James Beckwourth, a well-respected Black mountain man, fur trapper, army scout, and explorer. The Searchers, a 1956 film starring (the openly racist) John Wayne, was based on Britt Johnson, a Black man celebrated for his courage and bravery on the Western Front. The Lone Ranger himself is believed to be based off of the first Black US Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves.
The whitewashing of Black Western stories in American pop culture contributed heavily to what we now see as a gaping hole in our collective memory of the immense contributions they made to Western culture and the dynamic stories their lives have told.
The Black Rodeo
Artist Ivan McClellan admits that his introduction to the world of Black rodeo was after a drunken birthday celebration for a dear friend shifted into an invitation to attend a rodeo in Oklahoma. On arrival, he was stunned to see an arena full of Black cowgirls and Black cowboys all there to compete. Ivan was also stunned to recognize that many of the riders were those he knew from his everyday life: schoolmates, church friends, neighbors. Ivan says that in that moment, he experienced a transformation in his understanding of the Black community he was part of in Kansas City, Kansas. “It shift[ed] the narrative of my home from a place of poverty and violence to one of ownership and pride.” Since then, Ivan has used his photographic practice to capture the essence of Black horsemanship and rodeo culture in the most ravishing ways.
There is something mystical in seeing a Black rodeo—the familiarity of the Western arena event so joyfully and creatively reimagined. In my interview with Keiara, I asked her to describe the biggest difference between the “Black rodeo” circuit and the “white rodeo” circuit. She answered candidly: “It’s almost the contrast of a basketball game and a golf tournament. We simply have more excitement and enthusiasm.” The pinnacle of this excitement and enthusiasm is the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
Since 1984, the Bill Pickett Rodeo has been the only nationally touring Black rodeo and a staple in Black cowboy culture. The annual invitational pays homage to Bill Pickett, a famed Black cowboy born to former slaves. A rancher in west Texas, Pickett one day needed a strategy to steer a particularly stubborn bull in his own herd. He took a cue from traditional bull-herding dogs and bit the lip of the large animal, bringing it to the ground in submission. This bold and skillful tactic was the beginning of steer wrestling—which would later evolve into the popular sport seen today at any rodeo, Black or white, across the US. Pickett was a popular figure who ignited a firestorm of entertainment and mastery in the rodeo show circuit during the 1890s when he toured with his brothers as the “Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Show.”
In the 1980s, Lu Vanson, founder of the Bill Pickett Rodeo, was uninterested in attending more white-only rodeos. He took it upon himself to build a space for Black cowboys to be celebrated and to educate others about the long-standing, often-dismissed Black contributions to American Western culture. Annually, over 130,000 onlookers revel in the skill, sportsmanship, and outright glamor of a rodeo arena that reflects them: Black cowboys and cowgirls energized by the roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and the iconic bronc and bull rides.
Among the swarming city life of NYC exists a group of cowboys and cowgirls committed to preserving and sharing the richness of cowboy culture. The NYC Federation of Black Cowboys, founded in 1994, is an unlikely stable nestled between the rowhouses of Queens. The small group of cowfolk offers rodeos, school visits, and horsemanship training programs for youth throughout NYC. You can catch them donning their Western boots, pristine hats, and dazzling jackets and riding across the busy streets of the Big Apple. Unapologetically, they engage with the awe-struck community members who never seem to get tired of seeing them trot past.
In 2016, after over a decade of running their own stable out of Howard Beach, Queens, the Federation of Black Cowboys lost their contract with the city, downsizing both their community impact and membership. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kesha Morse—the current (and first woman) president of the Federation of Black Cowboys—notes, “It’s sad, but we still exist, we still go to schools and educate the youth on the legacy. The mission was not to just have horses and ride horses; it was to educate.”
However, the visual legacy of the Old West stands in stark contrast to some modern Black cowboys, like Kenny Atkins. Kenny—known as Stona Mane among his crew, the Compton Cowboys—can be seen riding bareback on his shiny Black horse Ebony around his Southern California community. Trotting through crosswalks and riding up to corner stores, he wears Adidas sliders as his riding shoes and his long Black dreads hang down his tattooed back.
Kenny and the other eight members of his crew have catapulted into pop culture and are making a name for the Black cowboy of the past and future. In a recent Guinness ad, they are seen galloping alongside one another, dust flying behind the heels of their horses as they come to a stop at a local bar. They greet each other with secret handshakes, laughter, and roughhousing on horseback. “Did I save the horse, or did the horse save me?”
The nine of them met as children at Compton Jr. Posse, an afterschool program located on a ranch in the middle of LA. There, they learned the basics of horsemanship and fell in love with the cowboy lifestyle. As they aged out of the program, they maintained both their friendship and their shared passion, leading them to develop the Compton Cowboys. The group’s mission is straightforward: to uplift their community through the horseback riding and farming lifestyle, while highlighting the rich legacy of African-Americans in equine and Western heritage.
Being on a horse so often reminds me of my power and the gentleness I have to use to hone that power, and that allowed me to step away and feel confident that getting into that fight wasn’t worth it.
Randy Hook—also known by his cowboy name Savvy—told me that much of what the Compton Cowboys bring to the community was inspired but what they took from Compton Jr. Posse. Randy described the ways that, for many Black boys, their organization’s programming offers a portal into an alternate existence from the streets of Compton. “There is so much you can get caught up in here. We give many Black boys a choice for how they can live their life. And when I made my choice, I wanted to help guide the younger guys who were struggling into something similar. Something that instead of hurting us can heal us. I learned so much about how to navigate the world through what I learned on the horses. It humbles you. It checks your ego. It teaches you how to diffuse situations—that’s one of the biggest things I took from the ranch into the streets. Usually if someone did something like step on your shoe or run into you in the hallway, it would easily turn into a fight or something dangerous if it was the wrong person. Being on a horse so often reminds me of my power and the gentleness I have to use to hone that power, and that allowed me to step away and feel confident that getting into that fight wasn’t worth it. The lessons I learned really carried me through on and off the horse.”
During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, photos emerged of the Black cowboys on horseback joining the social uprising against police brutality at a march in LA. Strong and gracious horses carried several of the cowboys, who had donned black masks and black shirts with “Compton Cowboys” written across the chest. Even the horses wore Black Lives Matter signs around their necks in solidarity.
Amid such tumultuous times for the Black community, the Compton Cowboys bring with them a sense of history braided with futuristic hope. The ancestral and hallowed values of living off the land and honoring the beings we coexist with—all of this is evident in the work of these modern cowboys. Keiara Wade, the only woman rider of the Compton Cowboys, agrees that elements of Afro-futurism can be seen in the modern variation of cowboy culture. I explained to her how, when I first saw images of the Compton Cowboys riding through the city, they seemed like a slice of an African-American utopia. After months of images of Black men being manhandled, knee to neck, by white American law enforcement, it was a breath of fresh air to see a young Black man sitting tall and proud atop such a gorgeous and powerful animal—perhaps a hope renewed.
There is a prayer titled “The Cowboy’s Prayer” that reads: “Our Heavenly Father, we pause at this time, mindful of the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We ask, Lord, that you will be with us in the arena of life. We as cowboys do not ask for special favors…We do ask Lord, that you will help us live our lives here on earth as cowboys, in such a manner, that when we make that last inevitable ride, to the country up there, where the grass grows lush, green, and stirrup high, and the water runs cool, clear, and deep, that you’ll take us by the hand and say ‘Welcome to Heaven cowboy, your entry fees are paid.’” This prayer still holds strong in cowboy culture. For the Black cowboy community, it’s no different. In a photo series, McClellan documents the opening ceremony of the Arizona Black Rodeo. In the images, McClellan captures a dark brown woman on horseback in blue jeans faded just at the knee. Her hair is slicked back into a tight bun at the top of her neck, her shirt is sequinned and shining. In one hand, she holds the pan-African-American flag—in which the stars and stripes are reimagined with the colors red, green, and black to symbolize the historical journey of Black Americans. In her other hand, she holds the reins of a brown-bodied, black-haired horse. It’s a powerful vision and a bold reminder that the legacy of the Black cowboy will not be forgotten.