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El Fig Stables: A Home Off the Range

July 31, 1989|MICHELLE M. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

They don't call themselves "urban cowboys." In fact, these African-Americans shudder at the sound of it--even though some of them hail from South-Central Los Angeles.

But what else would they be called?

"Plain cowboys," explained Edward McClain while hosing down his horse's bedding at El Fig Stables. "Regardless of where you come from, we are all cowboys at heart."

Although they live in the heart of Los Angeles, own horses and often train, compete and live with their four-legged partners, the cowboys have opted for a pastime that is time-consuming, expensive and tiresome.

Something You Love

"But it's all worth it when you're doing something you love," added McClain, a horse trainer and cowboy who keeps his three horses, five dogs, four milk goats, several chickens and one goose on the land he leases at El Fig.

The empty lots of El Fig, on the corner of El Segundo Boulevard and Figueroa Street just off the Harbor Freeway, have been converted into horse shanties and stables. Surrounded by a war zone of street violence, they try to cut themselves off from the drugs and gangs that plague much of South-Central Los Angeles and focus on a more peaceful existence. This is the nesting ground for black cowboys from Los Angeles.

It was here that Charlie Sampson, the world's champion bull rider, got his start. In 1982, the 5-foot-3 Sampson, nicknamed "Pee Wee," became the first black to win a world championship in any rodeo event, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn.

Working as a stable boy at El Fig as a teen-ager, Sampson met several veteran black cowboys, like C. B. Alexander, who told him about rodeo life.

"There were a bunch of kids around, watching you do your thing," Alexander said. "I was riding bulls, and you know how young people are interested. You see the potential in them, and work with them and show them what you know. And Charlie went on his way to be a good bull rider."

Glimpse of the Rodeo

It is under the auspices of these former Southwesterners, many of whom have migrated from as far as Texas and Louisiana, that many African-American youths catch their first glimpse of rodeo from a black perspective--the first time many see blacks in the sport.

It is ironic, for mainstream Hollywood has long ignored the existence of African-Americans in the Old West.

Maurice Wade, a Denver cowboy in Los Angeles recently for a rodeo, observed: "I watched Westerns on TV and it always stuck in my mind, 'Why aren't there any black cowboys?' I knew there had to be something more to that."

And there is.

According to historical accounts, such as "Black People Who Made the Old West" by Loren Katz, one out of every three cowboys in the Old West was black. Many drove Texas longhorns north to market. Others were buffalo soldiers in the United States cavalry. And still others, attempting to escape discrimination and slavery, settled in the West, farming and ranching. They even contributed to the creation of rodeo.

But, as in the past, racism takes a back seat to the knowledge these cowbosys pass on to the next generation.

Take Annie Mitchell. When she and her husband used their savings in 1968 to buy their first horse, Augustine, Mitchell lived in a Watts apartment project and was forced to keep her horse in a friend's yard in the Richland Farms section of Compton.

Dreams of the ranch-style life--images of barrel racing, cattle driving and bulldogging--danced in her head. But not until 10 years later, when she moved next door to the house in Richland Farms, did Mitchell begin to live out her fantasy.

"We would ride up to El Fig," she said. "And we'd watch the cowboys and girls. What struck me most was the women. You don't expect to see women riding like the men, but I did, and it inspired me."

That's when she started barrel racing. In her back yard, Mitchell set up three barrels as the points of a cloverleaf pattern and practiced dashing among them.

Before long, the neighborhood children were lining up along her brick wall to watch her. That's when she drew them into calf wrestling and roping the calves and goats she cared for in her shed.

But she never even attended a rodeo, choosing instead to open the sport to black children. "Our black kids now don't have nothing to do," she said. "Rodeo gets them all fired up."

Besides roping and bulldogging, Mitchell joined the children in several parades and horse shows throughout Los Angeles County, helping the kids win first-place ribbons and giving them a sense of worth.

"Getting them into the horses and the animals, teaching them how to clean them, how to put saddles on correctly--it keeps them busy and off the streets," Mitchell said.

End of the Rodeo

But times have changed. Mitchell must work now. There's no more back-yard rodeo. She is slowly losing the kids to the streets again, but she hopes to make a comeback this fall.

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