When you think of Cowboys, the West and rodeos do Black people come to your mind? If you are like most people the answer is no. But the fact is in the West following the War Between the States one in four people were Black and Blacks played a major role and exerted an important influence on the territory. Whether it was through the legendary Buffalo Soldiers, the hundreds of cowboys who worked the ranges, farms and ranches, travelled the cattle trails, served as lawmen and in even in a few cases as outlaws. U.S. history books and Hollywood have ignored the Black presence in the West.
Few people know that it was a Black man named Bill Pickett who created and mastered the sport of bull dogging (steer wrestling) a mainstay of modern rodeo performing. Pickett who grew up on a ranch in West Texas the descendant of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, he lived and worked around animals all of his life. He made a name for himself doing tricks and a rodeo entrepreneur spotted him and Pickett gained fame and stardom touring with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Pickett was a pioneer with his unique style of performing.
Black cowboys continued that tradition and an all Black travelling rodeo competition was created and named after Pickett in 1984. Twenty-nineteen marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. The rodeo founder Lu Vason from Denver Colorado had a vision of creating a Black rodeo association. Vason blended the cowboy skills, lifestyle and traditions with the idea of a national touring company that has survived for thirty-five years. It has been difficult over the years but Vason and his supporters made it happen. Since Vason’s transition in 2015 the mission has been carried on by Valeria Howard-Cunningham.
Black horsemen and women are avid fans of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. They love horses and are serious about maintaining the tradition of riding, horsemanship, keeping the tradition alive and passing it on to a new generation. The BPIR travels around the country and provides a unique opportunity for the public to see Black cowboys, cowgirls, horses and the rodeo lifestyle up close and in person and find out about the legacy of Black cowboys.
My brother in law Adrian Harmon is a horseman in Georgia and last year he invited us to Atlanta to see the rodeo there but something came up and we weren’t able to go. This year he urged us to see the championship in Maryland and we made arrangements to go. My wife suggested we go on Friday, as it turned out when we went over to get tickets Friday evening the box office was closed. But we were able to meet some of the behind the scenes people, a sound engineer and the venue manager who were Black. They told us to come back in the morning around 10 AM when the box office opened.
The championship competition is where cowboys and cowgirls compete for points, prize money and the national championship. This year it was held at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro Maryland. The facility is the Prince George County Equestrian Center, an ideal location for the rodeo. Horse lovers, long time riders, horsemen and women as well as first time attendees came out in droves. The Friday afternoon children’s educational performance, the Saturday afternoon matinee and the Saturday evening performance were all sold out. We were able to get tickets for the Saturday evening show.
People came attired in cowboy hats, cowboy boots, jeans to enjoy the festivities and see the action. There were busloads of people from all over the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia area. Outside the arena in the stable and open areas there were black folks relaxing near their trailers, RV’s, Bar-B-Quing, line dancing and a camaraderie and friendliness that is part of the cowboy rodeo, horseman tradition.
The rodeo is an inter-generational event. I interviewed Catherine Hamilton a one hundred year old woman who was a first time attendee. Her niece who owns three horses brought her. She was in the thick of the action and when I mentioned to her that she seemed comfortable around the horses the D.C. native said, “Sheila follows them and when she said she was coming I told her I’ve never been to one and she said ‘I’ll take you’. I always had dogs and cats at the same time. I always loved animals.”
There were Black youth groups like the Hope Riders out of Clinton Maryland who participated in the Grand Procession during both the matinee and the evening performances. Hope Riders teaches youngsters how to deal with horses, how to treat the animals, grooming as well as ride from ages five to eighteen. One member, Rayna Martin thirteen, has been with Hope Riders for only two months but has always rode horses and has three horses of her own. “My uncle told me about Hope Riders. My dad is a Vet tech and I’ve always been around horses. My dad introduced me and I wanted to have horses of my own.” Rayna shared that she wants to be a veterinarian.
There were young people working, grooming, feeding and tending the horses who seemed to be one with the animals. Malik Pearson, nineteen, is a Baltimore native. He says horses saved his life. “I’ve been riding horse since I was four years old. When I was about three or four years old my grandfather used to babysit me and he bet horses. He took me to Pimlico Race Track to bet on the horses. I found horses out here in Prince George County and I’ve been riding ever since. I met a Black man named Mr. Don who runs a non-profit program in Baltimore called City Ranch and I started riding there and as I got older I started riding with Hope Riders out here in PG County.” Malik also rides in the local competitions. “I do barrel races, I do cow sorting, next year I will do relay. I’ve trained for it but I don’t want to do it until I’m really ready.”
While the D.C. area competition was a national invitational event they allowed walk on registration and participation. David Tubbs, twenty-eight, came to participate in his first rodeo. He was born and raised in Youngstown Ohio, his family subsequently moved to Washington D.C. and he became a cowboy in 2001. One of his mentors at the church he attends owns horses and David started riding and interacting with other horsemen and cowboys.
“He introduced me to riding. I started dressing the part, buying Western gear, riding horses and three years ago I started riding bulls. This is my first rodeo (competition). I don’t travel with them; they allowed me to walk on. It’s in my blood. I don’t know if anyone else in my family is into rodeo, I know I have people in Mississippi who have farms, I always wanted to be part of a Black rodeo.”
A Black rodeo is a sight to see the beautiful horses, the other animals and the skill of the sport are awe inspiring. Being around the cowboys, cowgirls, horsemen and horsewomen is a unique experience. They are serious animal lovers, they carry themselves in a confident manner but they are friendly, open and welcoming. I spent several hours at the venue before the show and got a chance to see them preparing for the matinee performance.
Malik invited us to the cook out and we mingled with the rodeo performers, riding club members and tailgaters who openly welcomed us, fed us and allowed us to get a feel for what this culture is all about.
When the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo comes to your area in 2020 make sure to attend, you will not regret it.