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Black Cowboys of Rodeo, by Keith Ryan Cartwright

Welcome to Black History Month! While the rodeo may seem like an absurdly oblique way to examine Black history, Keith Ryan Cartwright’s Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West, published last November by the University of Nebraska Press, manages to be illuminating on a wide range of subjects, and very entertaining as well.

Yes, the rodeo is a competitive sporting event, but it is one based on the real-life skills used by working cattle herders and cowhands, such as horseback riding and steer roping/wrestling. History, amply aided by Hollywood, has literally whitewashed the image of the American cowboy as John Wayne/Gary Cooper Caucasian, but the reality is that as many as 25% of those working the cattle ranges in the latter decades of the 19th Century were Black. After the Civil War, freed slaves who had worked the fields possessed agricultural skills useful in the frontier. They also quickly mastered, so to speak, the horseback riding skills previously used as a means of control by their slave owning oppressors.

In 38 brisk chapters, the author portrays the lives of dozens of these Black cowboys. Though the book’s angle is the rodeo, these cowboys were also entrepreneurs, settlers, founders and business owners. Their stories parallel the broader social issues of Jim Crow laws, segregation, discrimination and other aspects of the struggle for civil rights.

For example, the book’s first vignette focuses on Bill Pickett, a skilled cowhand from the late 1800s until his death in 1932. Pickett was a pioneer of ‘bulldogging’ cattle, jumping from horseback to wrestle a steer to the ground by its horns—and back in his day, a full-grown steer weighed 800-1000 pounds, unlike the smaller cattle bred in today’s accelerated factory ranching. He did get to display his prowess on the Wild West show circuit as well.

Pickett was finally inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, but not until 1971, nearly forty years after his death. To this day, only three other Black rodeo riders have received this honor.

Among the Black cowboys we meet in this book, we learn about:

  • Roy LeBlanc, who won a steer-wrestling event in the late 1940s. It was one of the handful of times he was allowed to compete in a main competition, only to see his winnings given to the second-place finisher, a white man.
  • Nathaniel ‘Rex’ Purefoy, who loved the all-white cowboy movies he watched as a child in the 1940s, but was truly inspired when he chanced to see Harlem on the Prairie, a 1937 movie western with an all-Black cast. He taught himself the tricks of the trade and did some touring on the entertainment circuit, and also had a brief Hollywood career on such programs as The Flip Wilson Show in the early 1970s.
  • Cleo ‘Mr. Black Rodeo’ Hearn, who was appointed as one of the first Black soldiers named to serve in the casket-bearing military Honor Guard in 1961. President Kennedy was still reluctant to get behind pushing for civil rights legislation. Instead, he nibbled around the edges by desegregating the Secret Service and the Honor Guard. Hearn was an accomplished rodeo performer, one of the founders of the American Black Cowboy Association, and was a key player in producing the first all-Black rodeo in Harlem in 1971. A three-mile-long parade of Black cowboys paraded through uptown New York City, and the event itself drew thousands.
  • Glynn Turman, born in Harlem in 1947. His childhood was spent watching horse-mounted police from the front stoop and reveling in cowboy movies. He and his mom later moved down to the East Village, where his mother was part of the artist community and was friends with James Baldwin. She arranged to have the eleven-year-old Glynn audition for A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, and soon he was acting in the role of Travis Younger alongside Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, Jr.  As an adult, he moved to Hollywood and performed regularly on television. He was considered for the part of Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but because George Lucas had storyboarded a romance between Solo and Princess Leia in the trilogy, he was hesitant to cast an interracial liaison, and gave the part to Harrison Ford instead. He was also an accomplished horseman, and owned a twenty-acre ranch near Los Angeles. His IX Winds Ranch Foundation, begun on the recommendation of Coretta Scott King, hosts inner city children for a summer camp. His acting career continues.

So yes, while this book is centered on Black cowboys in general and the rodeo specifically, the stories told illuminate every facet of Black history. Black cowboys have been seeping more and more into the consciousness of Americans, with such movies as Concrete Cowboy (based on the book Ghetto Cowboy, by G. Neri) and The Harder They Fall. Today’s Black Kos diary news roundup featured a story about the Black cowboys of South Central LA. Cartwright’s Black Cowboys of Rodeo is an entertaining and informative addition to the genre.