Cowboy Noir

Riding horses, sucking dust and planning for the big time

"A lot of the young cowboys today, it's not any more ranches for the cowboys to learn how to ride and rope on, so they have to depend on just the local rodeo pens to have events where they can come along and practice," he says. "Young white kids today have been brought up on big ranches and everything, and this is how they get their start. African-American cowboys just don't have anywhere to practice, not anything to work with."

Smith and other rodeo veterans say Houston has an abundance of promising cowboys. With enough opportunity, one might turn out to be the next Myrtis Dightman. Or the next Fred Whitfield.

In 1999, Houston-born Whitfield went even further than Dightman. He won the PRCA's most prestigious award: all-around world champ.

It's a high-pressure race across the arena.
Daniel Kramer
It's a high-pressure race across the arena.
Johnson says black cowboys need more 
Daniel Kramer
Johnson says black cowboys need more opportunities.

But before breaking into the PRCA and dominating professional rodeo, Whitfield proved himself in the Pickett Invitational, ultimately capturing the coveted rookie of the year award. A few years later, a young Houston cowboy named Justin Richard would do the same thing.

There was pretty much no question that Richard would ride in the rodeo.

His father, Charles Williams, is a talented calf-roper, and his mother, Lisa Richard, is a barrel racer. His uncles have competed or still compete, most notably Gary Richard, a veteran pro bull rider who nearly lost an eye when a wayward horn detached his retina.

But it was Caston "Shorty" Richard, the family's 78-year-old patriarch, who founded the dynasty. Shorty, whose nickname was not bestowed out of irony, is a portly, friendly man who punctuates nearly every statement with a warm chuckle. He is often found selling $3 baggies of homemade pork rinds at Houston-area rodeos.

"When you get my age, you gotta do a little something. Make a dollar," he says with a laugh.

Shorty grew up on a Beaumont ranch, making $240 a month taking care of the cattle and anything else that needed to be done. He developed a knack for calf-roping and picked up extra cash at local rodeos. Like everything else at the time, rodeos were segregated. But black cowboys could always earn money by waiting until the show was over and betting stock contractors that they could ride their best bull or horse. Shorty never chose that option.

"I never did believe in going where I wasn't welcome," he says.

In 1947, Shorty met his wife, Rose, at an Easter Sunday rodeo, and they married that December. The ranch's owner offered the newlyweds a place to stay, so they stuck around. The owner treated the black ranch hands well, Shorty says. But the guys working over them were another story. A story Shorty won't even tell.

"They just was hard on us…," he says, his voice trailing off. "I don't want to bring back old memories." No chuckle.

They moved to northwest Houston three years later. He spent $375 on a small horse, built a roping pen, and taught most of his eight children how to ride horses before the kids had all their teeth. By the time his grandchildren came along, Shorty had created the Southern Cowboy Rodeo Association to help other young black rodeo cowboys in and around Houston.

Richard started roping calves when he was ten, and he rode his first bull a year later.

"I was scared to death," Richard recalls.

That wasn't the only thing that scared him. At the same time he was trying to conquer bulls, he was trying not to get killed at school. By the time he was 11 and 12, Richard says, most of the kids at Key Middle School had pledged allegiance to either the Bloods or the Crips. Richard didn't want to be a part of either, but kids from both gangs fought him every day to break him down and claim him for their own. He was too scared to tell his teachers or his mother. His parents split when he was five, so he couldn't go to his father, either.

Once, after football practice, three kids jumped Richard behind the gym, and one drove an inch of a pencil into his right shoulder. He hid the wound from his mom, but an older cousin caught on. The cousin rounded up some friends and chased after Richard's three attackers with pistols. It didn't work. The three thugs later cornered Richard at school and showed him that they had pistols of their own.

"My life got threatened, and basically I was gonna run away from home to take care of that," Richard says.

Lisa Richard watched her son change from a vibrant kid who always loved to tell her what he was up to at school into a sullen, silent mope. His grades began slipping. She knew something was wrong.

"One day he just came in and told me he was leaving," Lisa recalls. "I said, 'Where do you think you're going?' And he was like, 'Well, I'm not going back to that school'…He finally just came out and told me that they told him that they were gonna hurt him if he didn't join their gang. After he told me that, I didn't let him go back to the school. I went to the school and drew him out and we moved to Waller."

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