CITY OF INDUSTRY, CA (News4usonline) – Bill Pickett epitomized the black cowboy experience. He invented steer wrestling, a fixture in any rodeo today. He was the first African American cowboy movie star. Pickett was such a giant in the rodeo arena that he was the first black to be put in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Coming out of the Old West era, Pickett was a legend of mythical proportions because of his cowboy prowess. Keeping Pickett’s synergy alive today are generations of black cowboys and black cowgirls, who are itching to keep this icon’s pathway to the rodeo gateway a staple for the present and future.
That’s the spirit of the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational. Winding down a national tour celebrating its 35th year in existence, the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational is a reach back to the past but also at the same time promotes the future of black cowboys and cowgirls.
Sixteen-year-old Wynter Floyd, a student at King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles, said it is pertinent that the tradition of the black cowboy and black cowgirl continues to be passed down to the next generation and generations to come.
“It’s very important in this day because not that many blacks get celebrated,” Floyd said. “The same thing goes for being a black cowboy or cowgirl. It’s very obvious just being here. It takes a lot being at this level, and if you’re at this level, that’s pretty amazing. We’re the next generation to make that happen, and I’m glad to be able to be part of something to make it happen.”
During its annual stop in Southern California at the Industry Hills Expo Center, the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational showcased generations of black cowboys and cowgirls to an enthusiastic and very welcoming audience for two days.
Some were there just for the glitz of the event. Some came to mingle. Still, the die-hard rodeo buffs, suited up in proper attire, wearing their whole getup of cowboy and cowgirl gear. The invitational has caused such a cultural stir in the African American community that actors Glynn Turman (Queen Sugar, How to Get Away with Murder), James Pickens Jr. (Grey’s Anatomy), and Obba Babatunde (S.W.A.T., The Bold and the Beautiful) have become regular participants.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to continue that part of history that a whole lot of people don’t know about,” Pickens said. “It’s been excluded from the history books and in schools, but we (African Americans) were such a vital part of the opening of the West. I think something like one-third of the cowboys that worked on the Chisholm Trail were African Americans or cowboys of color. We were lawmen. We were ranchers. We were rodeo riders, and I’m just proud to know the legacy of the Black West and the Black Cowboy. I think that the Bill Pickett (Rodeo Invitational) with keeping that legacy going.”
Comedian and actor Chris Tucker joined in the celebration one year. This year, the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational welcomed Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx as master of ceremonies and had actress LisaRaye McCoy (Ballers, Murder In The Thirst) show up as well.
McCoy, who’s been riding horses for nearly two decades, is quite familiar with the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational and the storied history of the black cowboy and black cowgirl. Besides the legendary exploits of Pickett, noted lawman Bass Reeves and Robert Lemmons, a master in the art of rounding up wild mustangs, anchored the reality of the black cowboy during the Old West period.
It is in the spirit of these great black cowboys that the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational evokes, said McCoy.
“This is the 35th (anniversary); this is us. This is black history,” McCoy said. “This is black excellence. This is black cowboys and black cowgirls. It shows us about animals. It shows us how to ride. It shows us who’s riding. It shows us how to have fun and be entertained with animals. They’re second nature to just riding and enjoying yourself and being able to feel that wind on your face. I used to compete here doing the relay races a couple of years ago. I started as a grand marshal, but then I said, ‘I know how to ride,’ and I came back here, and you see all the friends and family because it’s family fun.”
The main attraction featured a steady flow of cowboy activities such as bull riding, Ladies Barrel racing, relay racing, bulldogging (steer wrestling) and bareback riding, among other activities. Founded by Lou Vason, the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational debunks the myth of African Americans not being interested in other sports outside of the traditional football, basketball, and other projected stereotypical sports.
“It’s important to keep the history and the image of the African American cowboy relevant today because throughout history, we’ve been denied our place,” actor Reginald T. Dorsey said. “The Bill Pickett Rodeo (Invitational) makes sure that history is shared, and the education is shared and the inspiration to inspire other generations continues.”
Dorsey, who stars in the Urban Movie Channel’s 5th Ward, has been riding horses for most of his life. He calls the experience quite liberating.
“It’s a spiritual connection,” Dorsey said. “I learn from the horses as I teach them. It’s something that I can not only enjoy and have a ball with while riding out on the trails or whatever we’re doing, it’s something I can take out of my life and share that experience throughout different situations-not only with kids but with the way I conduct myself.”
For today’s black cowboy or black cowgirl, the art of the rodeo does not belong to the grips of one ethnic group; it is a sport that belongs to everyone, especially to African Americans, who were a part of the Old West as anyone.
It is why organizations or groups such as the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, Federation of Black Cowboys, Black American West Museum & Heritage Center, National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, as well as the Bill Pickett Rodeo Individual, exist in the first place.
Their presence allows the black cowboy and black cowgirl experience to continue to flourish.
“It’s like our heritage,” said longtime cowboy Cameron Hawley. “We’re the untold story. The history books don’t talk about us. TV don’t talk about us, but we know the reality that it was. We were like two-thirds of the cowboys back in those days, and we’d like to keep it going. We see kids, no matter who they are…we like to get them, especially little black kids and let them know that you can be part of this, too. Most people don’t realize that we are the original cowboy, and I’m so thankful that I’m able to be part of something like this because we constantly keep forgetting who and what we are.”