It’s rodeo season here in Houston! The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo begins tomorrow, March 1, and boasts the largest livestock exhibition and rodeo in the world. Rodeo performances have been popular since the late 19th century, and most are familiar with the events that comprise professional rodeos, such as team roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding; however, many rodeo-goers may be unfamiliar with the key role that Black and African Americans have played in the development of the all-American sport.
Black cowboys have been a part of Texas history since the 18th century and represented over one-fourth of all American cowboys; however, Black cowboys’ and cowgirls’ contribution to American cowboy culture is underrepresented in popular media depicting the “Wild West.” Despite the popular narrative, African Americans were the first to claim the label “cowboys,” and for many, the profession held the opportunity for emancipation from enslavement. After the Civil War, many Black cowboys were employed as horsebreakers, rodeo performers, or peace officers on Native American reservations, and many went on to be ranch foremen, managers, or owners.
Several Black cowboys earned notable reputations. Famous Black cowboys include John Ware, who worked on cattle drives from Texas up to Canada and performed in the Calgary Stampede; Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi; Bose Ikard, who participated in the cattle drives on the Goodnight-Loving Trail and inspired the character Deets in Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove; Nat Love, a former slave whose talent with horses and cowboy work established him as one of the most prominent Black men of the West; and Bill Pickett, a rodeo performer who invented the “bulldogging” technique used in steer wrestling and was the first Black cowboy to be honored in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Rodeos featuring Black cowboys first appeared in the 1940s, and continue to be popular today. The Texas Black Invitational Rodeo is the biggest rodeo event featuring Black cowboys and cowgirls in Texas. The Big Rodeo Project is a non-profit organization that encourages young African Americans to learn about and participate in the history of Black cowboys and cowgirls in rodeo. Texan Myrtis Dightman Sr., the “Jackie Robinson of Rodeo,” broke racial barriers by becoming the first Black cowboy to compete in the National Finals Rodeo; his legacy is continued by son Myrtis Dightman Jr., who today teaches horse riding and bull wrangling as leader of the 7W Youth Riding Club.
Black saddle and riding clubs continue to keep the legacy of Black cowboys and cowgirls alive and spread awareness about African Americans’ role in the shaping of the culture of the American West. Black saddle clubs rose to the public eye with their participation in the protests of the death of George Floyd and police brutality. Texan Black saddle and riding clubs include: