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A pioneering black rodeo cowboy enters the pages of history

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s newest book for young readers is a story about an incident in the life of a black rodeo cowboy. It’s a true story.

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson discusses, signs “Let ’Er Buck” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at Bookworks. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, she will be one of about 10 local authors who will give brief presentations and sign and sell copies of their books at the Loma Colorado Main Library, 755 Loma Colorado NE, Rio Rancho. And Nelson signs copies of her new book 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Barnes & Noble, 3701 Ellison NW, Cottonwood Corners.

The book is “Let ‘Er Buck! – George Fletcher, The People’s Champion.” Nelson, an award-winning Rio Rancho author, credits her husband, Drew, for calling her attention to an article about Fletcher in Cowboys and Indians magazine.

“I like finding stories that are worthy of being in history books but haven’t made it there,” Nelson said. She tries to find a way to share stories of real heroic figures with kids and adults, though the target audience of “Let ‘Er Buck!” is ages 7 to 12.

George Fletcher was 10 years old when his family left Kansas and settled in the town of Pendleton in eastern Oregon. He first competed for rodeo prize money at age 16, though he suffered discrimination. As Nelson writes, “… some rodeos and exhibitions shut out black cowboys. When he was allowed to compete, the judges hardly ever treated him fair.”

The focus of Nelson’s book is the Saddle Bronc Championship, the main competition at the Pendleton Round-Up of 1911. The prize was a $350 silver-trimmed Hamley saddle. Fletcher was up against 48-year-old Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce Indian, and John Spain, a white rancher.

The judges chose Spain the winner. Fletcher came in second. The crowd howled in disagreement that Spain, not Fletcher, won. They lifted Fletcher on their shoulders, hollering “People’s Champion!” and paraded around the rodeo grounds.

The Umatilla County sheriff, who was also a Round-Up board member, felt Fletcher was wronged. So he asked people to give $5 for cut-up pieces of Fletcher’s cowboy hat. The crowd donated more money to Fletcher than the value of the prize saddle. “Blacks came west to find land, start a new life just as whites did,” Nelson said.

“Part of my goal is not only in sharing a good story but also showing important accomplishments of African-Americans. Regarding George Fletcher, he changed the views of a lot of people about African-Americans just by displaying his talent and determination. … His story was inspiring.”

What makes Nelson’s story leap off the pages are the vibrant color illustrations of Gordon C. James, especially his thrilling full-page images depicting wild bucking broncs.

“I looked at pictures of angry horses, and I kind of exaggerated them (in the illustrations) to really get the message home,” said James, a North Carolina resident who is a classical trained oil painter.

Among Nelson’s other books for young readers is “Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal,” which won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2010.