Rider I, Laday’s Arena, Lovelady, Texas

Jonny Allen, Bill Pickett Rodeo, Oakland, California

Farshot, Bill Pickett Rodeo, Los Angeles, California

Chase Crane, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Fabrice Lane, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Ben Goodman, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Georgia Boyz Saddle Club, Shelby, North Carolina

Four Cowgirls in Black, Janetta Blanding, Jeanette Bellinger (twins), On Horseback,

Sharia Na’en and her mother, Ciandra Na’en and brother, Swainsboro, Georgia

Four Horsemen Riding Club, Shelby, North Carolina

Older Man with Yellow Riding Glove, Circle 44 Trail Ride, Houston, Texas

Ebony Horseman, Shelby, North Carolina

Couple, Swainsboro, Georgia

Glynn Turman, Grand Marshall of Bill Pickett Rodeo, Los Angeles, California

Mr. Wallace, Little Pig Foot Farm, Williston, Florida

Cowboy, Bill Pickett Rodeo, Los Angeles, California

Billy Ray Thunder & Thad Heard, Oakland, California

Cowgirl Relay Racers, Bill Pickett Rodeo, Los Angeles, California

Joel Russian, Ebony Horseman Trail Ride, Shelby, North Carolina

Joe Coleman, Bounty Hunter’s Club, Ebony Horseman Trail Ride,

Shelby, North Carolina

Older Couple, McKnight Roping Jackpot, Beaumont, Texas

Lee Allen, Ebony Horseman Trail Ride, Shelby, North Carolina

Black Cowboys

The cowboy, one of America’s most enduring cultural icons, has become identified with the white gunslinger in the popular imagination, but at the height of the cattle ranching period in the 19th century over one third of cowboys were African American. Black cowboy culture is still thriving and widespread, but is little known to the general public and essentially unheard of outside the United States. This marginalization was primarily the result of both official and unofficial segregation in competitive rodeos as well as Hollywood’s commercially-driven exclusion of black cowboys from western genre films and television. This hidden history calls for a reconsideration of cowboy iconography.

The term cowboy is reputed to have originated on slave plantations where jobs had titles like houseboy, fieldboy and cowboy. After abolition, the independence of the difficult but dignified cowboy lifestyle was preferable to sharecropping for many freed men and women. The riding techniques they adapted from Native Americans were combined with knowledge of animal husbandry and cow herding skills that many trace to African traditions. In the world of competitive rodeos which developed in the 20th century, even famous Black cowboys such as Bill Pickett — the inventor of “bull dogging” which is a popular steer wrestling event — were either excluded from participating with white cowboys, or were given time to compete after the close of the main events. This segregation created the need for a separate African American rodeo culture which continues to this day.

Across the United States, black riding clubs meet regularly and hold trail rides, backyard-jackpot rodeo competitions, and charity events. There are also various black rodeo leagues and other operations, including The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. These events take place year round and are increasingly popular and inclusive, blurring lines between professional cowboy and enthusiast, country and urban culture as well as southern and northern traditions. Besides the display of horsemanship skills, an important part of the black cowboy/girl lifestyle involves fellowship and the mentoring of children. These events also provide an opportunity for reuniting families and introducing young people to their history and land that was left behind after the Great Migration of African Americans out of the south in the early 20th Century.

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher 2010

Thanks to George Frazier, Alachua, Florida; The Wallace Family, Williston, Florida; Lu and Valeria Vason, Bill Pickett International Rodeo; Sam Howry and Sedwick Haynes, BPIR; The Bruno Family, Houston Texas; The Bynes Family, Swainsboro, Georgia; Billy Ray Thunder, Thad Heard and Quentin Steele Atlanta Georgia; The Federation of Black Cowboys, Jamaica, Queens NY; as well as the other people who keep the tradition of the Black Cowboy alive today.

End of Trail Ride, Cleveland, Texas

Young Smoking Man, McKnight Trail Ride, Beaumont, Texas

Young Man and Boy, McKnight Trail Ride, Beaumont, Texas

Woman Rider, McKnight Trail Ride, Beaumont, Texas

Young Man with Head Scarf, McKnight Trail Ride, Beaumont, Texas

Young Man with Du-Rag, Bynes Trail Ride, Swainsboro, Georgia

Rider II, Laday’s Arena, Lovelady, Texas,

Rider III, Laday’s Arena, Lovelady, Texas

Rider IV, Laday’s Arena, Lovelady, Texas

Rashon Jones, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Chase Crane II, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Dexter Goodman, Clarence Leblanc Jackpot, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Young Ebony Horsemen Riding Club Members, Shelby, North Carolina

Family Group, Swainsboro, Georgia

Brotherhood of Riders, Los Angeles

Alabama Cowboy, Williston, Florida

Clifford Salter, Los Angles, California

Kareem, Harlem, New York

Sadaria Owens & Greg Lanier, Swainsboro, Georgia

Ellis “Mountain Man” Harris, New York Federation of Black Cowboys,

Queens, New York

Blacksmith, Bruno’s Triangle, Houston, Texas

Relaxing Man, Juneteenth Trail Ride, Lil Henry’s Place, Beaumont, Texas

Man with Sunglasses, Laday’s Arena, Lovelady, Texas

Black Native American Cowboy, McKnight Trail Ride, Beaumont, Texas

“Uncle” Ben “Tex” Miller and Jesse Wise, Federation of Black Cowboys,

Queens, New York

Sylvester Miller, Brotherhood of Riders, Los Angeles, California

Injured Bull Rider, Jimmy Patterson, Bill Picket LA Finals, Los Angeles, California

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Framed: 88.2 x 76.2cm (30" x 34.75"). Editions of 5.

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