‘Don’t Forget the (Black) Cowboys’
Black cowboys, ranchers and historians are revealing a vivid chapter of the American story.
After being corralled for two years, Black ropers and riders of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo are saddling up once again for the summer — and their first live tour since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, with showcases scheduled in Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, and the Washington, D.C., area — and tickets are selling fast!
Not only has the BPI Rodeo been a popular event throughout the U.S. during its 30-plus years, but there has been a heightened interest in the stories and histories of Black cowboys and cowgirls following the racial reckonings that happened throughout 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by police. Last year on Juneteenth, CBS televised the rodeo, marking the first time any broadcast network ever aired the event.
“With all the racial issues we’ve seen in our society, people are more engaged in seeking to learn more about this history,” says Valeria Howard Cunningham, who helped found the rodeo in 1984 in honor of legendary Texas rodeo bulldogger, Bill Pickett, who became famous for subduing steers by biting their upper lips.
Pickett, often viewed as more of a performer than a cowboy by some purists, is arguably the best-known Black cowboy in U.S. history — albeit nothing like the character portrayed in Netflix’s Western action flick The Harder They Fall, which featured the names of Pickett, Rufus Buck, Nat Love, “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, and other iconic African Americans of the Old West but little else bearing any resemblance factually, a point of contention for some historians.
“When we misrepresent history, we spend a lot of time as docents correcting that history because it’s confusing to people who don’t know these people already,” says Eleise Clark, a board member of Denver’s Black American West Museum & Heritage Center, who also serves as a docent. Clark is working on a project about Buck and plays Fields in reenactments across the country.
“It takes a long time to dig up any Black history,” Clark says. “I’ve been at it for decades, literally digging up the history on these people. If you don’t respect the true…