The hooves churn, the mane whips, the back bucks.
And the cowboy is Black.
African Americans have been an integral part of the history of the Southwest since before the Civil War. But their stories have been largely expunged from the cultural imagination.
The Harwood Museum of Art’s exhibition “Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy” explores this history through archival photographs and contemporary art. The show will hang through May 7.
Despite the dominance of John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, Black cowboys helped drive and define the West.
But artists like Beyoncé have been resurrecting Black bodies and aesthetics back into Western culture. Solange Knowles’ video “Formation” features Black cowboys throughout its imagery. Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” a musical medley of country and blues, pays homage to her Houston heritage. Cardi B performed in head-to-toe cowgirl gear at the 2019 Houston Rodeo. Lil Nas X has emerged as a new symbol for Western wear and fashion.
At the height of ranging, between 1855-1895, between 5,000 and 9,000 African American cowboys came West, comprising 25% of the total number of cowboys nationally.
“A lot of the Black cowboys originally came out of slavery,” said museum curator Nicole Dial-Kay. “Many Black men who were slaves were in charge of driving cattle.”
Even the word “cowboy” came from the Antebellum South, developing from the derogatory use of “boy” to describe adult African American ranch hands.
That the same word now conjures images of white men in wide-brimmed hats is not only ironic, but historically inaccurate. Cowboy culture is rich with stories of men like Bill Pickett. Born in Texas to former slaves in 1870, Pickett became known for “bulldogging,” his unusual technique for capturing stray cows.
Ranging exploded after the Civil War, Dial-Kay said.
“There was so much racism in the country and jobs that didn’t pay well, so the range was a refuge.”
“I think many individuals were skilled, especially after acting as cowhands during slavery,” she added.
Some of the first and most notable cowboys in history were descendants of enslaved people. Bass Reeves, William “Bill” Pickett, Nat Love and Bose Ikard informed the mythos of the cowboy archetype, but their lives and experiences are often left untold in the stories crafted by Hollywood and documented through history.
Before the abolition of slavery, the cattle trade could provide slaves with a degree of relative freedom, as they were typically outfitted with firearms and left alone on horseback for weeks at a time.
Despite reported occurrences of equity in salary and duties with white cowhands, discrimination remained, albeit reportedly to a lesser extent than in other industries at the time.
When the number of cattle in Texas skyrocketed during the Civil War (1861—1865), the need for cowboys increased exponentially. To meet the rising demand for meat, cowboys wrangled and transported surplus longhorn cattle to markets. This marked the beginning of the multimillion-dollar cattle industry.
Cowboys drove their cattle east and north over such routes as the Shawnee, Chisholm, Western, and Goodnight-Loving trails; this latter route was established with the help of Ikard, one trailblazing Black cowboy in the early cattle drive era.
The West drew “land-seekers and home-builders, men who have come prepared to build up the country,” wrote Booker T. Washington.
The period of migrant cattle ranching came to an end with the rise of land development and the national railroad system. While cattle drives continued into the 1890s, by 1895 new homestead laws swept across the West, ending the heyday of the largely white-owned open range.
After retiring from life on the trails and ranches, many former African American cowboys became store clerks, farmers, railroad employees and cooks.
Some Black families sought opportunities to homestead and own their own ranches by moving to New Mexico. Milton Sutton made entry for homestead land in 1901 in Clayton, New Mexico. His two sons, Will and Joe, known to be riders who could break any horse, went on to help tame horses for ranchers in the region. Bazz Smaulding, another Black homesteader, made his way from Texas to file entry for land in 1906, developing his own ranch in Clayton.
Despite, or perhaps because, ranch work was dwindling by the turn of the 20th century, public interest in the cowboy grew. This resulted in the creation of Wild West events and rodeos, where cowboys could showcase their skills and personalities.
During the Depression, people were nostalgic for the Wild West and Hollywood responded by churning out Westerns starring white actors, cementing the skewed image of the white cowboy.
Many consider Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River, to be the inspiration for “The Lone Ranger.” Famously played by Clayton Moore, a white man, the Hollywood tale whitewashed the crucial place in history that Reeves deserved.
Artists in the contemporary section of “Outriders” include Kennedi Carter, Praise Fuller, Alexander Harrison, Ivan B. McClellan, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Ron Tarver and Nate Young, representing a varied set of relationships to the legacy of the Black cowboy. Some are involved in the rodeo world and document Black folks who live and breathe this tradition. Others, inspired by the lack of visibility in the mainstream media, seek to create a cowboy figure who looks like them. Together, their works are a prism of representations, portraits of the Black cowboy with all the stature of a mythical hero.