Reclaiming the Cowboy
2021 was a big year for the Black Cowboy.
There was the April 2021 release of Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin and Jharrel Jerome as well as the October 2021 release of The Harder They Fall - also starring Idris Elba, alongside Regina (THE) King, Jonathan Majors, RJ Cycler, Lakeith Stansfield and so many more black stars.
In August 2021, there was the release of the Ivy Park Rodeo collection by Beyonce. Photographer, Ivan McClellan released his Eight Second photo-series (which, by the way is also a kickstarter campaign for the Eight Seconds book. You can donate and get your copy here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eightsecs/eight-seconds-a-photobook-about-black-cowboys) and photographer, Forest McMullin also released his photographs chronicling the Black Rodeo Circuit.
photo credit: Forest McMullin
Black Cowboys were the media darlings of 2021 with full page spreads everywhere from The Bitter Southerner; and Cowboys & Indians; to The Undefeated and the L.A. Times.
But for a long time, that history remained unexplored and unexplained. While many of our rural cousins grew up riding horses and being about that farm life, the urbanite Black population felt no real connection to that culture. The mainstream, John Wayne-esque cowboy was the accepted version of reality. But truth be told, 1 in every 4 cowboys in the old west was a man of color. In fact, Black men were the reason cowboys have the name. Wranglers actually used to be called cowhands. However, as is widely known, they never gave the Black man the respect of being a man, hence they were always referred to as boy. So the Black cowhands were called, cowboys. Eventually, they were all referred to by that moniker.
By 1825, 30% of Texas' population was comprised of enslaved people and when the white Texas ranchers went off to fight in the Civil War, the enslaved remained to maintain the land and cattle herds. Those enslaved people developed the skills of cattle tending - caring for and breaking horses, pulling calves and longhorns out of the mud, etc. - that would render them invaluable to the Texas cattle industry in the post-war era.
Come Juneteenth 1865, Black people were finally free from the bondage of legal slavery so ranchers were compelled to hire now-free, skilled African-Americans as paid cowhands. Freed blacks skilled in herding cattle found themselves in even greater demand when ranchers began selling their livestock in northern states, where beef was nearly ten times more valuable than it was in cattle-inundated Texas.
“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” says William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history and the author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West.