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Jamie Francies Jr. approached the mayor of Brenham, Reese Lockett, who was in charge of organizing the annual trail ride bound for the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo. "Would you please provide me with a trail ride application?" Francies asked Lockett.
"Hmmm..." replied Lockett. "I'll have to think on that."
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The hesitation wasn't because of Francies's horsemanship. Francies, the son of a cowboy, had broken a wild mustang in his youth and had valuable ranch-hand experience. Nor was the hesitation a matter of questioning Francies's moral character. Francies was a good family man, always ready to help out others in need.
"It was my skin," says Francies. "The color of my skin was problematic for him."
Francies was black, and the year was 1957.
Lockett looked at Francies and contemplated all of the scenarios that might go down. How would the other men feel about letting a "negra" ride with them? How might they retaliate?
Lockett was aware of the tomfoolery that took place on the weeklong trail ride. A "colored" man would certainly be made the brunt of any hijinks. "How would I stop them from urinating in your boots?" Lockett asked Francies. "How would I stop them from roping you like a calf? How do I keep them from lighting matches between your toes at night?"
Francies had already considered the possibilities. Lockett wasn't telling him anything that he hadn't already contemplated, so Francies stood there awaiting the application.
"Look," said Lockett. "I'll give you one, but you need to take it home and think if this would be in your best interest."
Lockett handed Francies the form, but Francies knew that it wouldn't necessarily be accepted or even processed. Even so, Francies would take the application home that night and confer with his wife, Nannie. Perhaps the two of them could come up with a solution.
The Salt Grass Trail Ride that Francies longed to join was organized in 1952 and was the first rodeo-sanctioned ride that led right into the rodeo fairgrounds at the Sam Houston Coliseum. Since then, of course, the Fat Stock Show was rebranded as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and has changed venues from the 9,200-capacity coliseum to the 71,500-capacity Reliant Stadium. The rodeo, beginning February 28 and running through March 18 this year, is expected to see an audience of more than 2 million, up from just 2,000 since its start in 1932.
Attitudes have changed as well.
"You cannot study Texas history or Gulf Coast history without giving credence to black cowboys," says Leroy Schafer, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. "It's extremely important that youngsters growing up know and understand the heritage, particularly the African-American students."
Of course, the trail rides into the Houston rodeo aren't the only ones of the year. If there's a weekend, chances are there's a trail ride.
"Trail rides are a way we can come together and celebrate our heritage and upbringing," says Cowgirl Gee Brown, who is part of the M and D Social Riding Club out of Texas City.
On a recent weekend, a group of 500 got together for the Betty Love trail ride starting from a pasture in the small Brazoria town of Danciger. On the night before setting out, campers tied their horses to trees as DJ Ricky D brought with him 1,000 watts of Zydeco and set his speakers near a makeshift dance floor under a barn.
In a tent a stone's throw away, Enith Brown and Clyde Hendricks played dominoes. While Brown kept sending Hendricks to the boneyard, other trucks were arriving. Buck Johnson, a retired 68-year-old chemical worker, rode in with his state-of-the-art diesel and trailer that affords him and his horse every amenity of home. His cab seats recline, giving view to the plasma screen that descends from the ceiling above.
Gee Brown and the M and D Social Riding Club haven't brought anything that extravagant to the trail ride. Instead they've brought two mules and a covered wagon and covered their campground with Christmas lights.
It seems that black cowboys and horses — both transplants to the New World — have formed a bond of lasting importance.
Before the rodeo moved into Reliant, and even before it moved into the Astrodome, white men and white men only ruled the trails that had run through the rodeo gates since they opened in the 1930s.
Texas was still under Jim Crow laws and would be for another eight years. If a black man wanted to participate in the trail ride, he was invited to work somewhere in the background. Stables needed hay and a cowboy needed provisions, but a black man riding among white men as equals? The thought was socially forbidden.
However, in the trail days, circa 1880, obeying those social mores wasn't always an absolute. Hollywood had John Wayne and other white icons represent the hero that tamed the West, but, according to Ohio-based Bennie J. McRae, a noted military historian with a special emphasis on African-American studies, history and Hollywood don't always agree. The black cowboy actually played a more prominent role in rustling cattle than Hollywood would have its audiences believe.