On the Enduring Legacy of the Black Cowboy
Just east of where the limestone knolls of the Texas Hill Country flatten out into the loamy soil of the Coastal Plains, a fleet of dually pickups pulling horse trailers and RVs rumbled through the small city of Hempstead. The trucks snaked down the quiet streets, passing rows of single-story homes with tidy yards and headed toward the high school on the outskirts of town. There, situated between an old Jewish cemetery and the football stadium, a large pasture surrounded by evergreens had begun to transform into a campground teeming with cowboys and horses. It was the last Saturday in February, and, although spring was still weeks away, bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes blanketed both sides of the road, and the sky stretched above the convoy in a warm cloudless blue. At the camp’s entrance stood Myrtis Dightman Jr. Sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat and an even wider grin, the 61-year-old trail boss stopped each vehicle as it entered, shook hands with the driver, and welcomed them to “the Big Ride.”
Inside Dightman’s mobile home–turned–camp headquarters, volunteers surrounded by stacks of paperwork hustled to get some 200 riders registered. When the insurance forms had been signed and the $40 fee had been collected, the participants were handed a button and instructed to pin it on their shirt. “Prairie View Trail Riders Association” the badge said in purple and yellow letters above a shining white diamond, a nod to the organization’s 60th anniversary.
The milestone was a source of pride for the volunteers, and they were quick to point out that their group was the oldest African-American trail ride in Texas, and, possibly, they said, in the United States. The group was named after Prairie View A&M, the historically black college best known for its agriculture program. Dightman’s father cofounded the association in 1957 with Dr. Alfred N. Poindexter and James Francies Jr. because, Dightman Sr. said, “We had never seen a black ride downtown. It was always white. We thought there was something wrong with that.” The tradition of trail riders traveling from far-flung places (Hempstead is 60 miles northwest of Houston and other riders come from as far as Hidalgo, which sits on the Mexico border) to join the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s annual parade had begun five years prior, but until the founding of the Prairie View trail ride, African Americans were not included in the procession of floats and marching bands.
“There was only about 10 of us and one wagon,” Dightman Sr., now 82, said, reflecting on that inaugural ride. When the Prairie View riders arrived in Houston to camp the night before the parade, they weren’t welcome to join the other trail ride associations. “We didn’t camp with the white riders,” Dightman Sr. continued. “We were kept over on a hill off by ourselves.” And the next morning when they rode through the city’s downtown district for the first time, Dightman Sr. recalled that “the white riders didn’t want to ride with us, so we rode about three or four blocks behind them.” Despite the segregated nature of the event, every year that followed more and more riders joined Prairie View on the trail. Years later, during the civil rights movement, when rodeo officials decided to integrate the black and white campsites in Memorial Park, which at the time was considered a “whites only” park, the National Guard stood watch. “They were there to make sure that nothing happened,” said Dightman Sr.
Walking through the Prairie View campsite in Hempstead, such a fraught scene was incomprehensible. Folks congregated in lawn chairs outside their campers, chatting and embracing newcomers as they trickled in while racks of ribs grilled on open pits. A mix of hip-hop, ’70s soul, country, and zydeco boomed through speakers from one end of the camp to the other. Children roamed the grounds, some toting lassoes that they used to rope plastic calf heads mounted on bales of hay. “Check me out!” one bragged to his friends when the loop drew taut around the dummy’s neck.
For some, the journey that would begin early the next morning meant there were chores to be done. The wagons were inspected, the wheels greased, and fresh coats of paint applied to the wooden frames. Although it only takes an hour to drive from Hempstead to Houston by car, the trail riders would need six days to cover the distance, and walking on asphalt for that amount of time could be hell on horses. No one knew that better than Dennis Holloway. Wearing thick leather chaps and a magnetic wristband holding a cluster of nails, Holloway lifted the leg of a chestnut mare to inspect its hoof. He picked up a rasp and filed until the edge of the hoof was smooth beneath his hand. Then using one of the nails attached at his wrist, he began to carefully hammer a horseshoe into place. Holloway said he had learned how to shoe horses from his father, Walter, who was only a few yards away at the time, tossing wood into a metal trough for a fire they’d burn later that night.
“I’ve been on this trail ride since I was 2,” Holloway the younger, who is in his 40s, told me, “but my dad, he’s been out here since 1967.” Holloway the younger made his living as a full-time farrier, but that didn’t mean he saw the morning’s activity as a typical day’s work. “I get to relax out here,” he said, preparing another hoof for a shoe. “The whole family gets together. This right here is like a vacation to me.”
Holloway’s sentiment rings true for many who travel every year from all corners of the state to attend. Multiple generations of a single family are a common sight on the trail. Grandparents will doze off in the backs of wagons while their grandchildren clop along behind, boots flopping against their horse’s flanks because their legs are too short to reach the stirrups. To these families, the Big Ride is every bit as anticipated as Christmas or Mardi Gras. The sense of belonging and the importance of heritage, black cowboy heritage in particular, that many trail riders acknowledged is exactly what Dightman Sr. and the founding members of the Prairie View Trail Riders Association hoped to foster, especially among the young men and women who come to ride.
That’s the mission that continues to motivate Dightman the younger. “You see the kids out here, they’re the ones who’ll take all this forward,” he said, while we surveyed the campgrounds that by late evening had filled to capacity. Serving his third year as trail boss, Dightman approached the role with a humbled appreciation of the organization’s legacy of preserving the history of the black cowboy. When the trail’s chaplain, Aquila (A.F.) Riggins, stopped to chat with Dightman, he reiterated the important role Prairie View plays. “Some of our young folk are not connecting with the past,” he said, “but when they come out here and learn about western culture, agriculture, how to take care of cattle and horses—that’s something positive that we’ve nearly lost. It’s not just a party. We do have a good time, but it’s not all about going to ride in the parade. The whole experience is teaching us how to preserve where we come from.”
“Some people don’t even know there are black cowboys,” a veteran ranch hand, known simply as Popcorn, told me later on the trail. Though he had worked cattle on some of the most famous spreads in Texas, including ranches owned by Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell, Popcorn said he had also done a stint driving a big rig. While he was hauling a load through Ohio dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, a woman had said to him, “There aren’t any black cowboys.” Popcorn didn’t miss a beat. “Well, I don’t know about anywhere else,” he replied, “but there are in Texas.”
Dightman, for his part, proudly listed several professional rodeo cowboys riding with them this year. He mentioned champion tie-down roper and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Fred Whitfield, as well as Cory Solomon, another tie-down roper who has notched three trips to the National Finals Rodeo.
“If you look back on the National Finals Rodeo, you can count the blacks that’s in there on one hand,” Michael Mills, one of Prairie View’s safety officers, pointed out. In fact, it was not until 1964 that Myrtis Dightman Sr. became the first African American to compete in professional rodeo’s main event, not long after he and the inaugural group of Prairie View trail riders had ridden past the color barrier in downtown Houston.
Dightman Sr. went on to qualify for the NFR six more times and has since been inducted into virtually every hall of fame there is for professional rodeo cowboys. Today a bronze statue in his likeness stands in his hometown of Crockett, Texas, where every year a rodeo that bears his name is held over Labor Day weekend. Some have called Dightman Sr. the “Jackie Robinson of rodeo,” and yet, unlike in baseball, few African Americans have followed him into the arena.
The reasons why more black cowboys aren’t currently entering professional rodeo may be impossible to pin on any one reason. For Prairie View’s chief safety boss, Ron Turner, it wasn’t for lack of interest, rather it was a matter of access. “I’ve always loved rodeo,” Turner explained, as he and two of his fellow safety officers, Mills and a man named Andrá Whitaker, warmed their hands over a barrel fire. The temperature had dropped significantly after sunset, and now plumes of smoke rose from similar fires burning across the camp. “But when I was growing up, I wasn’t fortunate enough to have the facilities to do those kinds of things. Lots of times, if someone did have a horse, he didn’t have a saddle. He’d be riding it with just a piece of rope.”
But Mills believed there was more to the dearth of African-American professional rodeo cowboys than the costly expense of horses, feed, saddles, bridles, and all the accompanying tack. Mills also saw an omission of black cowboys from pop culture and the history books. Turner agreed, saying that he’d grown up watching cowboy movies and serialized westerns on TV. “But you never see a black in Gunsmoke,” he said, pausing to adjust his dusty felt hat.
“You’ll see one, but he’s no cowboy,” Whitaker chimed in, in an accent that betrayed his Cajun roots. “He’s got on overalls because he’s a hand.”
“Even with Bonanza, I think it’s one,” Turner replied. “All the episodes they made of Bonanza, and it’s one.”
Whitaker shook his head. “Same with The Rifleman. The only one I can recall seeing is Sammy Davis Jr. Now he was a gunslinger.”
Of Hollywood’s many sins against history, one of its most egregious is the omission of African Americans from its depictions of the American West. Black cowboys on the silver screen remain as rare as swimming holes in the desert, however, according to historians, in the two decades that followed the Civil War (1866–1886), one in four cowboys was black. It was during this “golden age of cowboys” that legendary white cattlemen such as Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving made their names establishing trails from Texas to Midwestern railroad hubs like Dodge City, Kansas, where herds of longhorns fetched high prices from the beef-deprived meat markets of the North. Much less is written about the exploits of Bob Lemmons, a former slave who was highly skilled at capturing mustangs, or Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, a black cowboy known for his marksmanship and his ability to break wild horses. Though it spanned only 20 years, this short-lived era has inspired more than a century of pop-culture mythmaking, spawning perhaps the most iconic figure in all of American lore. To say that the omission of the black cowboy from this lore is conspicuous would be an understatement.
The reality of a cowboy’s life was one of extreme hardship, marked more by loneliness and boredom than the heart-quickening exploits of adventure that fill the pages of dime-store novels. Weeks passed under a brutally hot sun with typically only seven other men and several thousand head of livestock for company. Despite the toil and drudgery of the job, scholars have figured that black men may have experienced the least amount of discrimination working in the cattle trade than in any other industry at the time. Crews made up of white, black, and Hispanic men would bunk down together and generally received equal pay at the drive’s completion.
Still, black cowboys were often given the hardest, least-desired tasks. They rarely rose to the rank of trail boss or ranch foreman, no matter how skilled they were. (There were some exceptions, such as Al Jones, who bossed an outfit in Texas.) And when a posse finally rode into town, trail-weary and in need of a stiff drink followed by a soft pillow, the black cowboys often faced discrimination from prejudiced bartenders and innkeepers, forced to eat and drink in segregation or, at some places, refused service entirely.
By the mid-1880s when barbed wire began to close the open range, over 5,000 African Americans had helped drive an estimated 5.7 million head of cattle out of Texas. Like many of the cowboys of this era, Deadwood Dick hung up his spurs to become a railroad porter not long after the final spike was driven in the Southern Pacific Railroad line, which completed the first transcontinental railroad traveling through the South and signaled the beginning of the end of the cowboy’s golden age.
Though the legends of black cowboys are few, perhaps the most famous was William Pickett. The Taylor, Texas–born ranch hand–turned–rodeo superstar is credited for being the only individual to have single-handedly invented a rodeo event. “Bulldogging” is the act of chasing down a steer on horseback, leaping off to catch it by the horns, and twisting the animal’s head to lay it over on its side. Pickett’s signature move was named for an aspect no longer practiced in the modern version of the event: While making the tackle, he would sink his teeth into the steer’s lip like a bulldog, raising both hands in the air for extra flourish. His celebrated showmanship and daredevilry made him a celebrity of the early 20th century and one of the few African-American cowboys to star in silent films.
Despite being one of the most important figures in rodeo history, safety officer Mills believed that Pickett and the history of black cowboys have not been properly taught in schools or represented in the media. “If you go up to the average, say, 15- to 20-year-old, and ask them who William Pickett is, they can’t tell you,” he said, as the fire began to dwindle in the barrel. “If you ask them about black cowboys—can you name some black cowboys—they probably can’t.” Mills turned and gazed out toward the darkened camp. “But then when you look at how this trail ride is done and how it’s preserved, it stands out. It gives them something to be proud of.”
At five the next morning, Dightman began blasting Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call” through a PA system he had rigged to his F-150. Slowly the camp stirred to life. Blankets were unhooked from dozing horses. Canvas bonnets were stretched across the wagons’ metal ores, like old-school convertibles raising their soft tops at the sight of rain. Embers still smoldering in the metal drums were extinguished, sending clouds of smoke skyward, where a chalky-blue light began to spread in the east. Despite the early hour, an energy hummed through the group.
“Today’s make it or break it,” Dightman said as he inspected the riders and wagons that had begun to assemble in one long column. The trail boss had changed from the work clothes he’d worn the day before into a purple paisley shirt and clean stiff Wranglers. He’d swapped his straw hat for a Stetson silver belly, his black boots shone with polish, and a silver buckle gleamed on his belt. All the riders were dressed in similar fashion. One of the mothers went from one young boy to the next tucking in their freshly starched shirts. Had the kids not been sitting atop ponies, the scene could have passed for a family getting ready for church. When all the riders and wagons had finally been corralled into place, Dightman gave the signal, and, for the 60th straight year, the Prairie View trail riders rolled out of camp and spurred their horses toward Houston.
Many of the old-timers were quick to admit that the experience of the trail ride had changed significantly since they first rode into Houston in the late ’50s. Back then, the trail riders slept on the bare ground with nothing but a canopy of stars overhead. Today, riders FaceTime while they clop along behind wagons pumping zydeco out of battery-generated speakers, and sleek RVs are driven from one site to the next where riders relax in comfort at the end of each day. “It’s harder to find campsites,” Dightman confided, “because the cities are growing so much. Times change and so has the trail.”
Despite the ceaseless advance of modernity, the expansion of highways, and suburban sprawl, for many of the trail riders the simple ritual of horses, mules, and wagons traveling over land remains a touchstone of the past. “This is how people traveled across the country,” said Tamarian “Freeway” Meeks, the boss of Wagon 4 representing the Family Circle Riding Club out of Madisonville. I rode with Meeks and her trail hand, Ashley Cage, in their wagon as they made their way from Memorial Park into downtown Houston for the parade on Saturday morning. Meeks took a drag from her cigarette and snapped the lead line on her team of mules. “That’s Jack,” she told me, nodding to the mule on the right, “he’s the muscle.” Then she gestured to his partner. “And that’s Jill. She’s the brains.” Meeks held the reins loosely and kept her eyes fixed ahead watching for the horses in front of us to come to a sudden halt. She stood occasionally to check the wagon’s tongue and to survey the ground ahead for potholes or deep cracks. “I’ve got rough hands,” she said, tugging at the reins to slow the mules. “If there’s callouses, they’ve been there a long time.”
Meeks wasn’t complaining though. She loves the Big Ride. “I was born Super Bowl Sunday, and 12 days later I was on this trail ride,” she said. “They put me in a shoebox in the camper.”
Cage shot her a look of disbelief. “A shoebox?” she hollered over the noise of the wheels grinding on the asphalt.
“I was only 12 days old!” Meeks shouted back. “Twenty-five years later, I’m still here.”
“My baby’s 7 months old,” Cage turned to tell me. “He’ll be here next year.”
The city’s skyline grew larger on the horizon until finally the skyscrapers began to tower above us as we fell in line with the rest of the parade. A snaggletoothed boy riding a palomino behind us pumped his fist into the air and cried, “We made it!” The scene was slightly surreal: cowgirls and cowboys moving on their horses against a backdrop of steel and glass, far removed from the wide open fields surrounding Hempstead. Helicopters whirred overhead, and local news stations trained their cameras on us as we passed. Throngs of people filled the sidewalks—there were dogs on leashes, fathers bouncing babies in their laps, and tykes waving miniature Texas flags as though their wrists were made of noodles. On several street corners spectators filled the upper levels of parking garages. Every few blocks an announcer called out the name of the wagon and its driver over a loudspeaker. Each time Wagon 4 was acknowledged, Meeks stood, and with one hand holding the reins, she waved like rodeo royalty to the crowd. “This here is the gala of all trail rides,” she said, beaming.
At the very front of the parade, Dightman Sr. was the guest of honor riding in a buggy alongside the rodeo’s president and his wife. What he and nine others had begun with one wagon now saw roughly 1,500 African Americans riding through the streets of downtown Houston. A few drops of rain fell as the wagons finally came to a halt, six days after they had departed Hempstead. “Oh, Lord, my butt!” one of the young kids whimpered as he gingerly slid from the saddle. Dightman Jr., however, looked like he’d never felt better. The trail boss walked up and down the line of parked wagons shaking hands, bidding farewell to his family and old friends before they dispersed. The Big Ride was over, and although Dightman allowed himself a moment to enjoy the happy scene, he knew that soon they’d start planning for next year. “It won’t be long,” Dightman said, “and we’ll be back
on it again.”