Sunday, September 24, 2023

Black Cowboys

I have been interested in cowboys since I can remember. I am sure this was greatly influenced by the movie westerns of the 50’s. But we also had an annual rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York and I learned many years later from a cowboy in Arizona that this event was what all Rodeo riders aspired to.

Once Upon A Time ...

In Later Years, Wickenburg, AZ

Therefore, a week ago, we went to a lecture titled “Enslaved and Free Black Cowboys in the Southwest”. It took place at the New Mexico History Museum. It was just one episode of a humanities festival called, American identities, “illuminating diverse American experiences through lectures, music, film, and discussion”. The organizing institution, the School of Advanced Research (SAR) is led by Michael F. Brown, a cultural anthropologist, bills itself as an “institution advancing creative thought and innovative work in social sciences and humanities and fostering the preservation and revitalization of Native American cultural heritage.” The Black history subject, unusual for Santa Fe, drew a packed house.

The lecturer was Ron Davis,II, a Phd candidate at the University of Texas. Austin who recently curated an exhibition on Black cowboys for the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He had a 24-year career in the military and served in various capacities including 5 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make a long story short during his initial posting in Oklahoma he was sent to recruit voter registration at the Black rodeo. He, being Black, but from Boston, was not aware of Black rodeo performers. He started talking on one of the contestants and asked how long his family had been riding. The reply surprised him. They were cowboys before the civil war. That piqued his curiosity.

When he left the military he went to study at the University of Texas, Austin. In the academic environment, and particularly as a Phd student, he found himself deep in the weeds, but his advisor told her students to read their sources over and over again. He did so and soon felt as if he knew some of these cowboys personally.

One of the first things he learned is that it was only through Hollywood movies that all cowboys became White. In reality, 25% of the cowhands on any cattle drive were black and 62% of the ranchers owned slaves. In the early days a ranch was considered large if it had just 100 head of cattle. Even then skilled cowhands were needed. As soon as a slave turned 10 they were expected to start working. One of the slave cowboys he read about broke his first horse at the age of 10.

By the 1880’s the XIT ranch was the largest fenced ranch in the world. It covered 10 counties roughly 30 miles wide and covering 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle near what is now Lubbock, Texas. In 1885 it had 22,000 head of cattle which eventually grew to 150,000.

The autobiography of a Black cowboy, Hector Bazy, particularly fascinated Ron Davis. Born into slavery Bazy began working as a cowboy at the age of 14. He tells his story of everyday life for the cowhand from 1865 into the 1890’s. He writes that on the trail cowboys made no racial distinctions. Their goal was to make money. Of course, when they were back in town everything returned to what was then “normal”. After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) nothing really changed in the southern and border states. Jim Crow started in the 1870’s and continued into the 1960’s. (I still remember, as a little boy, asking my father when we visited Florida why I couldn’t use the bathroom at the restaurant that said Negros or Colored on the door.)

Though their work was essential on the long cattle drives even the most skilled Black cowboys were not promoted because of their color. Some of them however saved enough money to purchase their own head of cattle.

Ron Davis’ research taught me a lot about the reality of the images of the Old West I had as a kid. A fascinating detail came from a question at his lecture: among the top-earning star jockeys of the early Kentucky Derby races so many were Black because of their background as cowboys.



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