Happy National Day of the Cowboy! Today we're honoring the cowboys that have been written out of the wild, wild West’s history—Black Cowboys. Due in part to Hollywood’s complete and total exclusion of Black people from Western films since they became popularized around the turn of the 20th century, Black Cowboys are rarely acknowledged for their role in the American West. In fact, over a quarter of cowboys were Black and participated in everything from rodeos to cattle drives, and even owned and operated their own ranches.
A number of Black Cowboys were born into slavery and worked on ranches in Texas and the West before the Civil War. After being freed from slavery, many Black Americans stayed West and continued working on ranches, while Black Americans from across the country were now free to migrate west and join them. Here began the advent of the Black Cowboy.
Black Cowboys often worked as horsebreakers and cattle herders, and worked up to higher positions like ranch foremen or managers, sometimes eventually owning a ranch or farm themselves. Here, they could escape the aggressive discrimination they were more likely to face in urban areas, and were more likely to be valued based on their skills and dependability as a cowboy.
Joe Ferguson, creator of the documentary “The Forgotten Cowboys” which explores the distant and contemporary history of Black Cowboys, points out that "there are times when you really need the assistance of another cowboy. That was not the place to be too prejudiced or too hostile to the cowboy riding next to you”. While being a cowboy is certainly regarded as a lonesome life, it was also one that necessitated trust and cooperation with your partners.
Performing in a rodeo was another popular occupation that many cowboys took part in. One of the most famous Black performers, Jesse Stahl, was a bronco rider who, despite his immense talent, rarely came in first during competitions. It was speculated that this was because of Stahl’s skin color, and his response to it came at a competition in Salinas, California. After being awarded third place, he climbed onto the toughest bronc he could find and rode it backwards, irrefutably proving his talent and grit as a rider regardless of what the judges ranked him. This earned him a spot in history as a fearless cowboy, a fact compounded by the his subsequent career performing “Suicide Rides” in which he would showcase his talent through daring and dangerous stunts while always maintaining control of his bronco.
While many legendary Black cowboys rode around the end of the eighteenth century and early 1900s, the tradition continues today across the country. Ranches nationwide are dedicated to educating people about the forgotten history of the Black cowboys, with the Federation of Black Cowboys operating in Queens, New York and the Oakland Black Cowboy Association hosting annual parades all the way in California. From coast to coast, and everywhere in between, Black cowboys are ensuring their place in history isn’t swept out of our collective memory.