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Black cowboys played major role in shaping the American West

PHOENIX – Calls for social justice amid the Black Lives Matter Movement has renewed focus in addressing the ignorance of the past, including the often-overlooked history of black cowboys and the significant role they played helping shape the American West.

Hollywood and history books have painted a predominately white picture of the Old West when in reality, it was a much more diverse landscape.

“Not every enslaved person took cotton, not all of them tended to ground. Some of them were actually employed as ranchers,” Tyler Parry, a University of Nevada Las Vegas associate professor, told Fox News. “The true tragedy is to ever paint the American West or the idea of the cowboy as strictly just a white man in a hat with a gun.”

He said the country is filled with accounts of black cowboys who worked cattle drives, told stories around campfires and helped establish towns in the West.

Nat "Deadwood Dick" Love was a legendary figure of the West, known for his adventures during his days of cattle driving.

Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love was a legendary figure of the West, known for his adventures during his days of cattle driving.
(Library of Congress)

Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love was born into slavery in the 1850s and became a legendary figure known for getting into adventures on cattle drives. William “Bill” Pickett was a famous rodeo star credited with founding the sport bulldogging, also known as steer wrestling.

“To imagine what we go through dealing with racism and social injustices to imagine what he [Pickett] had to go through in the early 1900s to persevere and become a legend solidifies his history for me,” Gerald Anderson, Pickett’s great-nephew, told Fox News.

Pickett was the first African-American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. He was credited with helping to bridge the racial divide at the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Bill Pickett (second from left) can be seen on horseback. He was one of the first great rodeo cowboys and the first African-American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Bill Pickett (second from left) can be seen on horseback. He was one of the first great rodeo cowboys and the first African-American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
(Willie B. Royal / Bill Pickett’s niece)

Anderson pointed to a photo that he said was remarkable, given when it was taken. There’s Pickett on horseback with two white cowboys sitting in the photo, which he said was “virtually unheard of in the 1900s.”

“That tells you about the love, respect and admiration for Bill Pickett that they’re willing to take this photo with him sitting horseback while two white cowboys were sitting on the ground. He crossed those color lines and barriers before Jessie Owens, before Jackie Robinson.”

Lanette Campbell founded the Arizona Black Rodeo in 2012.  Her mission was to educate the public about black cowboys and their role in the American West.

“Arizona really needed some culture brought to life here,” Campbell said. “People are still surprised to this day that there are black cowboys. These guys will ride up and down the street and people will really stop and look and say, ‘Wow, we just didn’t know we had black cowboys.’”

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Shaheed Muhammad, who is training for a relay race in the upcoming Arizona Black Rodeo on Labor Day weekend, said his friends were shocked when he decided to trade the California beaches for a pair of spurs and the Arizona desert.

Bill Pickett toured with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show for more than two decades.

Bill Pickett toured with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show for more than two decades.
(Norman Studios)

“I’m from LA, the ocean, so they can’t believe I came out here and turned into a cowboy,” Muhammad said.

He saw his first cowboy while growing up in Compton and said he was proud to see the Compton Cowboys take to the streets on horseback to protest for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in May.

“It was beautiful to see them out there,” Muhammad said.

The group helps engage the community through horseback and farming lifestyle while educating people about African-American’s western heritage.

Shaheed Muhammad, pictured with his horse Shaka, moved from Los Angeles to Arizona to become a cowboy. 

Shaheed Muhammad, pictured with his horse Shaka, moved from Los Angeles to Arizona to become a cowboy. 
(Ben Brown / Fox News )

Despite being in “cowboy country,” Muhammad said “people still don’t believe black people ride horses or own horses” and that he feels a sense of responsibility to change that.

“I think it is our responsibility to, you know, bring that information to them, that some of the first the very first cowboys were black,” he said.

Andrea Underwood, who is practicing barrel racing, said horseback riding is “in my blood” and is excited to see the African-American community continue to grow each year.

“So many people are shocked to hear about this all-Black ranch out here and they get excited when I tell them about it,” Underwood, who is black, said. “You don’t see many black cowgirls out here either, so it’s something exciting to share and people are always interested to hear about it.”

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Historians estimate that a quarter of cowboys were black at the time.

Eduardo Pagán, Arizona State University’s Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History, noted the numerous mistakes in literature that would fantasize and romanticize the West and was “blind to a number of realities.”

Andrea Underwoood has been riding for almost two years and is practicing barrel racing.

Andrea Underwoood has been riding for almost two years and is practicing barrel racing.
(Ben Brown / Fox News)

Pagán told Fox News, “If you look at literature in the 19th century, African-Americans as characters are rarely featured, and if they are, they’re only caricatures.”

And those popular western movies in the early 1900s built off this literature that ignored the rich diversity that defined the West, additionally overlooking the role Mexicans and American Indians played during that time.

“This literature got all sorts of things wrong,” Pagán said. “As Americans, what we come to think about the West and what we learned about the West is really shaped by media, by the Westerns that we watched – the John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.”

Lanette Campbell (top left), founder of the Arizona Black Rodeo can be seen sharing a laugh with fellow cowgirls and cowboys. 

Lanette Campbell (top left), founder of the Arizona Black Rodeo can be seen sharing a laugh with fellow cowgirls and cowboys. 
(Ben Brown / Fox News )

“I think it’s just this general American stereotype that what we call blackness has to just mean urban, when in fact, historically, you can argue the opposite, that black people were very much involved in settling different areas throughout the United States and creating unique cultures, but also ones that contributed to the broader society as well,” Parry said.

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Campbell is doing her part to help rewrite history, using the Arizona Black Rodeo as a platform to help educate as well as entertain. She plans to hold a rodeo on September 5 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“For us to create our own history and to actually make sure we preserve our history is something that we have to continue to do and that’s why we actually do have black rodeos,” Campbell added.

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