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Trails and Tribulations: Club Extols Past of Black Cowboys

September 06, 1987|BILL MANSON

CHULA VISTA — Just north of Main Street, as it leaves Chula Vista, is the West. The True West. Not the West of Will Rogers and Tom Mix and Hollywood's blow-dried blond gauchos.

This is the Wild Woolly West of the guys who actually tamed this neck of the woods way back when. The guys whose kinky hair and bravery earned them the name "Buffaloes" among cavalry cohorts and Indians alike, back when the new territories were really wild.

And these whooping horsemen roaring down toward Main Street now are their spiritual descendants. The dust is spurting from the hoofs of a dozen horses. Ponies are doing vertical leaps looking for their mamas. Dogs dash among their hoofs yelping like hounds of the hunt. Guinea-fowl squawk and scatter as the posse bursts upon them.

"Stay together! Stay together," yells Calvin Holt, the oldest cowboy, from the porch of a shack. As the posse rushes by, all of the kids and wives nearly knock Holt over as they scramble onto the wooden porch out of the way, then burst out laughing.

"This is us," Holt says. "We're folk with a mission--but man we're having fun doing it."

The folk with the mission are the Black Cowboys of Southern California. They're a loosely knit group that has gotten the idea that the cowboys among their forefathers haven't been dealt a fair deal by history.

They also just plain love fooling around with horses. They like using that love to give a good experience to a lot of inner-city kids who have hardly gotten to know another living thing that wasn't either cat, dog or television.

They also tell these kids about their forefathers, the black guys who did maybe more of the leg work of winning the West than anyone else.

The best time to get the low-down is first thing on a weekend morning, when the hard core are already up and out at "the ranch" on the hill beside the little old pencil-yellow Woodland Park Church of God in Christ. That used to be the only building in sight. But today, they're on the edge of the urban tidal wave of Chula Vista.

New houses awkwardly dot canyons all around, even though there's a lot of dust and not many footpaths, yet.

Look west and you think you're in the suburbs. Look east and you're in the country. Look around and you're in the dusty middle of a corral straight out of frontiersville. Not cutely so. Just by its dusty simplicity.

Its dogs, colts and fillies wander 'round unfettered, its low-slung, unpainted wooden lean-tos sprawl with comfortable porches and shade and chairs where chewing the fat takes priority, and quality of life is Job One. The buildings were put up by the club's old-timers over the past 15 years.

These stables are the direct opposite of those classy stables where nags and stabling alone cost the price of a new car every year.

In this place, all the guys pay is the food and utilities--a basic $40 per horse. The rest they do themselves. Labor of love. Even the horses, when they bought them, were free.

The horses don't wear shoes here, but that doesn't mean they are down and out. Just that they never use the roads. These are some of the most heavily loved horses in the Southland.

Right now though, the guys are out there with the shovels. They're filling up a trailer with manure to take to the dump because they can't find anybody to buy it as fertilizer. Horses apparently leave weed seeds alive and well in their manure. So when you put it on your garden, everything grows--everything.

Irungu Adeyemi is waiting to hop into the driver's seat. This guy is straight out of the movies. Highly curled straw hat, blue bandanna, blue shirt, brown chaps, Humphrey Bogart eyes, and nothing of the dude cowboy whatsoever. Friends have abandoned his Ethiopian name for Ted.

You expect to hear a Texan cow-puncher's drawl when he speaks, but there he reveals his other life. He has a law degree. He's a teacher. At Ira Harbison School in National City, he "demands excellence"--and gets it. His sixth-grade class, a mixture of Anglo, Filipino, Hispanic, black and Vietnamese students, carries the highest test scores in its district, he says.

George Hill, the cowboy next to him, is the regional vice president of A.L. Williams Insurance Services.

Dan Bembry, next to him, is a licensed vocational nurse at the Hillcrest mental health facility.

They're all guys with heavy jobs. This is obviously where the steam gets let off. Where they can get back in touch, where they can work effectively for black consciousness, and help out kids, too.

"This is not some alienation movement to separate black cowboys from the rest, or black kids from the rest," says Adeyemi, who is part Cherokee. "It's a consciousness thing. We want to teach black kids about what their ancestors really did: teach the Anglos how to break horses, introducing steer wrestling and bulldogging and basic ideas of the rodeo. We want them to know that the 9th and 10th Cavalry did more than its share in winning the West, that they were known as the "Buffalo Soldiers" out of respect.

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