Cowboy Noir

Riding horses, sucking dust and planning for the big time

Justin Richard has about a ton of wild, bucking bull beneath him, kicking up red dust and throwing back a head with horns like bayonets. He clutches the reins with his right hand, his left arm waving like he's hailing a speeding cab, war-torn red-and-black boots pinned to the bull's sides.

The 21-year-old is on the short side, but powerfully built. The muscles in his arms and legs make him look like he could ride a bull for days. Right now, he's got to hang on for only eight seconds. Eight seconds to show the judges that he can do better than the preceding rider, who seemed to hang on for a minute, and who had the gall to do it while wearing a pink shirt. You don't want to lose to a guy who wears a pink shirt.

Bull-riding is any rodeo's highlight, and the crowd at Smitty's Cow Palace has endured hours of suffocating Memorial Day heat to see cowboys from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana tempt fate in eight-second increments. The palace itself is not much to look at: a bare-bones open-air ring surrounded by a dirt loop booby-trapped with rocks, bricks from what appear to be ancient ruins, plus old trailer homes and the occasional junked car.

Eleven-year-old Richard rides his first bull at Johnny 
Nash Arena.
Daniel Kramer
Eleven-year-old Richard rides his first bull at Johnny Nash Arena.
Richard has proved himself as a killer calf-roper.
Daniel Kramer
Richard has proved himself as a killer calf-roper.

A few hundred spectators are piled into wooden bleachers and the beds of pickups surrounding the ring. At least the heat has died down; it's now about 9:30 p.m. and portable lights illuminate the ring.

Earlier today, Richard killed in calf-roping. But he wants to win bull-riding, too. He wants to be what they call an all-around cowboy. And he wants to win the all-around world champs. If he does, he'll be the second African-American in history to do so.

Pick a cowboy, any cowboy, and he's guaranteed to be white. Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers. Heroes in wrinkle-free Western wear who could lasso the bad guy, jump a canyon and yodel a ballad to the girl all at the same time.

The myth of a whitewashed West has remained so strong for so long because it's adapted to changing trends in popular entertainment, according to Don Reeves of the National Cowboy Heritage and Western Museum in Oklahoma City.

"They just plugged that image of the American cowboy out of the Wild West shows and the dime novel literature and put it on film," Reeves says. "And those industries did not include, by and large, the depiction of the African-American cowboy."

But black cowboys played an important part in frontier life, especially in Texas and the Great Plains, Reeves says. The museum's hall of fame includes black cowboys who were lost in Hollywood's version of history. One of the greatest ever was Bill Pickett, generally credited for pioneering bulldogging -- wrestling a steer to the ground. Born in Travis County in 1870, Pickett grew up on ranches and watched how some dogs caught runaway steers by biting their lips. Pickett started doing the same, and word of his speed and technique spread throughout the state. Dubbed the Dusky Demon, Pickett became a hit at rodeo exhibitions and Wild West shows, and even became one of the handful of black cowboy movie stars. In 1970, about 40 years after a horse fatally kicked him in the head, he became the first black cowboy inducted into the museum's hall of fame.

Fourteen years later, a savvy promoter in Denver named Lu Vason created the Bill Pickett Invitational, a renowned touring black rodeo. Some of the best contemporary rodeo riders emerged from the Pickett rodeo.

Vason, who says his professional background includes forming the Pointer Sisters, started the rodeo to showcase oft-overlooked black talent.

"Why we've been overlooked? I have no idea why we've been overlooked. We've been trying to figure that out ourselves," he says. Vason's rodeo season runs from February to November, with hundreds of competitors vying for purses ranging from $7,000 to $22,000. Vason kicks off each show with a little history lesson on some of the great black cowboys, guys like Houston's own Myrtis Dightman, often called the Jackie Robinson of rodeo.

"Myrtis was the first black to go to the national finals," Vason says of Dightman's 1966 breakthrough. "He was performing when they wouldn't let him win. He would place second a lot, but they would never let him win."

Dightman never became world champ, but he inspired a new generation of black cowboys to aim for what was once an unthinkable goal. In 1982, Charles Sampson became the first black cowboy to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's world championships in bull-riding.

Like Vason, Lorenzo Smith Johnson wants to nurture future champs.

Johnson is the Smitty of Smitty's Cow Palace, a patch of land that's been used for rodeos, on and off, for 40 years. Smitty, 59, leased the property in September, after it had languished for years. He refurbished and extended the ring and built a spacious lounge with a jukebox and pool tables. Hundreds of competitors and fans turn out for his monthly shows.

The ultimate goal is to build a rodeo school for up-and-coming cowboys and cowgirls. He says there are not enough places where kids can get the training they need to work their way to the big circuits.

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