The cowboy, one of America’s most enduring cultural icons, has become identified with the white gunslinger in the popular imagination. However, at the height of the cattle ranching period, in the 19th century, over one-third of cowboys were African American. Black cowboy culture still thrives, and yet remains little known to the general public and is 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 mainstream Western genre films and television. Black cowboy culture calls for a reconsideration of traditional static cowboy iconography. Black cowboys have formed an evolving culture and style that blends the archetypal cowboy image, alongside the ranch hand, with hip-hop and soul influences, and outperforms the filmic stereotypes.
The term cowboy is reputed to have originated on slave plantations, where jobs had titles like “houseboy,” “fieldboy,” and “cowboy.” After abolition, the independence provided by the demanding but dignified cowboy lifestyle was preferable to sharecropping for many freed men and women. Riding techniques adapted from Native Americans were combined with knowledge of animal husbandry and cow herding skills, which many trace back to African traditions. In the world of competitive rodeos, even famous Black cowboys such as Bill Pickett — the inventor of “bull dogging,” 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.
Across the United States, Black riding clubs meet regularly and hold trail rides, backyard jackpot rodeo competitions, and charity events. Other activities include various Black rodeo leagues, including The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, The Real Cowboy Association, and The Cowboys of Color Invitational Rodeo. Competitions take place year round and are increasingly popular and inclusive, blurring the 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, or cowgirl, lifestyle involves communal fellowship and mentorship of children. These rodeo activities provide an opportunity to reunite families and introduce young people to their cultural history as well as the land that was left behind after the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, in the early 20th century.