“We’ve Been Here All Along, Doing It With Style”: The Lesser-Known History of the Black Cowboy

Christian Allaire

Vogue

2020, JUN. 5

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters marched downtown Houston, demanding justice for the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other black Americans who have been victims of police brutality in the country.

Roughly two dozen of these participants showed up on horseback; the riders belong to the Nonstop Riders, an urban trail-riding club based in the city. Wearing black T-shirts bearing Floyd’s face, the group’s presence made for a striking display of solidarity and resistance. By riding horses, the protesters quite literally assumed a larger, more powerful stature than those on foot—one that matched the surrounding police officers, many of them also on horses.
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Black cowboys and cowgirls have shown up to support Black Lives Matter this week, but their presence also symbolizes something much more. Black cowboys have long been part of American history: As reported by the Smithsonian, historians estimate that during the 19th century, one in four cowboys was black. Many ranchers depended on these skilled black workers to herd their cattle, and many went on to become famous rodeo stars themselves, such as Bill Pickett, who invented the bulldogging technique. Yet throughout the 20th and 21st century, the narrative shifted. Hollywood films whitewashed the idea of the cowboy, turning it into a stoic caricature. Competitive rodeos, and the equestrian world in general, also continue to be dominated by white male contestants, despite the fact that there are many prominent groups of black riders across the country. In the South, for instance, Creole trail rides see black men and women frequently ride together to celebrate their culture and acknowledge their forgotten history. This week’s horseback protesters, then, not only rode for a display of unity, they came with a message: We are still here.