How Black Cowboys Built the American West: A Living History

Francky Knapp

Messy Nessy Chic

2020, JUN. 5

You may hear it, before you see it. The gentle trotting of hooves backdropped by the sounds of New York City’s JFK Expressway. Even locals do a double take when they cross paths with a member of the Federation of Black Cowboys. When they ride, they tell the true story of the Wild, Wild West: that it was built by Black cowboys. In fact, an estimated one in three cowboys was a person of colour in the 19th century. It’s an often unsung legacy, and one that lives in big city Black cowboy clubs, working Black ranches, and luxury label-featured organisations and entertainers. But what did it really mean to be a cowboy in 1890? What about today? We spoke with Ron Tarver and John Ferguson, two photographers who have spent extensive time in Black cowboy communities – either growing up in them, or gravitating towards them from across the Atlantic – to document their story. Spur up, folks.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Ron Tarver, grew up in Oklahoma, where his grandfather was a working Black cowboy, “driving cattle in a small town near Tulsa,” he tells us by phone from Philadelphia. As a kid, the rodeo was like his playground. And while he doesn’t identify as a cowboy, he recognizes how that cowboy environment has shaped him. “Oh, I grew up hauling hay,” he laughs, “and herding cattle on our motorcycles.”

As a working photographer in the 1990s, Ron Tarver published his groundbreaking four year–long series of images on black cowboy life for National Geographic. “Not even thinking about the fact that it was a novel thing,” he says, “To me, these were men and women who just worked. It was their life.”

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Growing up, many Americans are taught to see Manifest Destiny as this thrilling spectrum of possibility – a blueprint for bravery, with the occasional dash of Donner Party crazy. “The whole idea of taming the West,” says Ron Tarver, “well, basically, you’re just uprooting indigenous people.” The history of the Mexican-American cowboy, for example, is very complex, and interwoven with that of the black cowboy. It opens a layered conversation about integration, adaptation, and survival. This, too, has been superseded by cowboy whitewashing. Colonialism, but make it Marlboro.

“Black cowboys did work that White people didn’t want to do,” says Tarver about the very beginnings of 19th century black cowboy life, “which is kind of the history of being black in America. Black and brown people came up –brown from Mexico – and would heard cattle from Texas to the north.” During the Civil War, many Southerns in battle also relied on Black ranch hands to keep things running smoothly, resulting in the latter’s honing of an amazing cowboy skill-set. “When slaves were freed, and a lot of slaves went to Texas during emancipation,” says Tarver, “they found work in ranches.”

They were cattle herders, fence painters, fiddlers, and cooks – gifted in whipping up a hearty meal of biscuits and sowbelly during the harshest conditions. “One guy talked about how in the winter, he’d have to break the pond’s ice so the horses and cattle could drink water,” recalls Tarver about a memorable story he’d heard at the O’Connor Ranch in Texas, “and as soon as he’d get through to the very last one, the first would be frozen over again.”

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Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman – they all owe a huge debt to these stories. “Hollywood played a massive part in neglecting the African American presence in the western genre,” adds John Ferguson, “How many Westerns do you see growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s with a black cowboy?” Not many. That’s why, Ferguson and Tarver agree, these relatively new social club reincarnations of black cowboy life, from New York’s FBC to California’s “Compton Cowboys” and others, are powerful community building spaces for young people.

Now, the rural Black cowboy communities born from centuries old working ranches are perhaps different in that they were a product of the need to work. But in their down time, those cowboys also create wonderful community spaces. “There was this one cowboy party I went to,” says Tarver, whose photographs of the Black cowboys have been exhibited nationally, “and when I say party I mean, back in this barn like thing, maybe with a pool table and juke box, but everyone was dancing and it was like a hundred degrees at night. Kids are there, too. It was just amazing. You worked hard, and you played hard.”

And while cowboy rodeo events and trail rides remain a “niche” topic in mainstream white-centred media, keep in mind: these gatherings are not always groups of a few dozen people. “The first rodeo I walked into, I couldn’t believe how big it was,” says Ferguson, “I mean, you have massive arenas in America. There must have been about 20,000 black cowboy fans.”

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You may have also caught wind of the “Dread Head Cowboy” in Chicago this past week – the entertainer’s videos, riding horseback in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, have gone viral. “I think it’s good for kids to see that such a lifestyle isn’t unique to white people,” Tarver says of the media attention. “It’s good to keep that out front. Otherwise, being black in America comes to be seen as this urbanized existence. That’s not necessarily true. This breaks that myth. This shows young people that there’s more than one way to be black in America.”

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So, how can you show support for black cowboy communities?
Follow related social media accounts, offer volunteer work, and donations to the Federation of Black Cowboys, Oakland Black Cowboy Association, Compton Cowboys and the Texas museums like the Black Cowboy Museum, est. 2017, and the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum.

Continue to learn about black cowboy history with texts like Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge – and take a moment with the Federation of Black Cowboys below: