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Rodeo Reinforces the Role of Blacks in History of the West

Traveling U.S. show named for the late Bill Pickett, begun in 1984, has launched the career of a number of top performers.

June 05, 2005|CHARLES ODUM | Associated Press Writer

CONYERS, Ga. — What led the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the nation's best-known black leaders, to trade his Sunday church clothes for Western wear and jump on a horse?

"A lot of prayer," joked Lowery, who served as grand marshal for a recent stop of the Bill Pickett International Rodeo.

The all-black rodeo, named for the black cowboy who invented the art of bulldogging, has been touring the nation for 21 years. But Lowery says the history lessons offered at every show need to reach a wider audience and do more than spread the story of one man.

"I agreed to do this is because our history with the building of the West has been saturated with vanishing cream. Blacks did play a significant role in pushing the frontier," Lowery said from beneath the brim of his big cowboy hat.

In pushing the civil rights frontier, Lowery, 82, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy in 1957.

Even with Lowery's half-century of experience, the rodeo may have been the first time that he has been welcomed with such country and Western warmth. "Thank you, Dr. Lowery, for being with us, pardner," the public address announcer blared.

The rodeo proves that there are still plenty of black "pardners" anxious to compete in a sport more commonly associated with whites. More than 50 cowboys and cowgirls competed in its latest stop in Georgia.

The all-black rodeo also has served as a launching pad for some successful pro rodeo stars, and more are moving up.

ProRodeo's first black champion was bull rider Charles Sampson in 1982. In 1999, Fred Whitfield became the first black cowboy to claim a world all-around title. Four years later, he became the third cowboy to reach $2 million in career earnings. He was elected to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2004. Mike Moore, Ronnie Fields and others join Whitfield in the current ranks of black rodeo stars.

Nearly 30 years ago, when young entertainment promoter Lu Vason attended his first rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyo., he didn't find an integrated competition.

"My curiosity was piqued as to why there were no black cowboys," he said.

Later, Vason visited the Black American West Museum of History in Denver, and it was there that he learned about Bill Pickett, born in 1870 in Texas.

Pickett helped refine what now is known as steer wrestling with his success in riding alongside a steer, jumping onto its shoulders and horns, then digging his feet into the ground to bring the animal down. According to legend, Pickett borrowed a trick he learned from a cattle dog by biting the lip of a particularly stubborn steer.

In part due to his fascination with Pickett, Vason was hooked on the sport.

"I just got excited and thought if I was having that much fun, other black people would have that much fun," Vason said. "At that time, I decided to put together an all-black rodeo."

Vason's original plan was to stage an annual black rodeo in Denver, but the 1984 debut became a national tour of 10 to 13 stops. This year, the rodeo is scheduled for Beaumont, Texas, on June 18 and the Del Mar Fairgrounds near San Diego on June 25-26. Then it moves to Oakland on July 9-10 and the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank on July 16-17. Its next stops will be Denver; Austin, Texas; Washington and St. Louis. Before coming to Conyers, about 30 miles east of Atlanta, it made its first stop of the year in Memphis.

The Georgia event attracted a predominantly black crowd of several hundred, including many young children.

"Parents bring them to expose them to the culture of the black West," Vason said. "We have to do something with more hip-hop" to attract teens.

Most of Vason's cowboys are from Oklahoma and Texas, and have similar stories about growing up around horses and rodeos. Even some who grew up in an environment where black cowboys were commonplace were taken with Vason's all-black show.

"I was very inspired by it and motivated," said Jesse Guillory, who saw his first Bill Pickett Rodeo in Houston 20 years ago and was immediately hired by Vason.

"It was one of the greatest things I had seen, black cowboys and black cowgirls," said Guillory, now general manager of the rodeo.

Houston native Justin Richards, 22, says he remembers when he was tempted by other more mainstream sports such as basketball and football. Then came a rodeo accident that forced his hand.

"I messed around and got hurt when a bull stepped on me and broke my ankle," said Richards, adding that his high school coaches were angry at losing a player and ordered him to commit to a sport.

"I decided to cut the other sports loose and make rodeo full-time," he said.

Richards may join the line of cowboys who have used the Pickett rodeo as a training ground for other pro circuits.

"This is just a steppingstone for a lot of these young guys," Guillory said. "For us, it has been great. We've had Fred Whitfield, we've had Ronnie Fields, we've had Mike Moore. We look at them up there and we're very proud to know they were a part of this."

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