Cowboy Noir

Eleven-year-old Richard rides his first bull at Johnny Nash Arena.
Daniel Kramer

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.

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.

"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.

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."

She moved Richard and his younger brother near her brother Larry, a cowboy who trained Richard on his horses and helped him hone his calf-roping technique. Richard liked riding his uncle's horses and he liked his new school. His grades bounced back. He could forget about the Bloods and the Crips and concentrate on rodeo. He stuck with it throughout high school and into Wharton Junior College, where he studied agriculture business and accounting. He has one year left, and he's putting it on hold to shoot for the pros. And although his mother would rather see him finish school first, she's the one Richard cites as the reason he even has a chance at the pros today.

"Keeping me…out of trouble…and raising us two knuckleheads at the same time made life a whole lot easier on me," he says. "And that let me put my heart into it."

"I'm the one that brought boots and cowboy hats to Kashmere," Richard's uncle Gary says of his high school days. "It was a [predominantly] black school and they thought…I'd never make it in the white man's game. But, like I told them, it wasn't a white man's game. It was a cowboy's game."

Gary Richard rode his first bull at age five. He turned pro 16 years later.

At 42, he's one of the oldest cowboys in the pro organization known simply as Professional Bull Riders. He's also one of the PBR's few blacks. In the four years he's been with the organization, he's won nearly $200,000.

"It's like a big dream," he says of bull-riding. "Sometimes you can't even describe the feeling that you get riding bulls. You're feeling all this power and strength under your body."

The rush is so great that nearly turning into a Cyclops can't keep Gary from riding. While he was competing in a Lubbock rodeo eight years ago, Gary's bull threw its head back and punctured his right eye with a horn. The blow fractured his cheekbone, sliced through his retinal artery and detached the retina. He says doctors wanted to remove the eye, but Gary, a deeply religious man, said God would provide. Apparently, Gary had some sort of pull, because the wound healed and he regained most of his vision in that eye.

That kind of strength is good to have when dealing with aspects of pro rodeo meaner than any bull. Gary is often the only black cowboy competing in a rodeo. He remembers a Rapid City, South Dakota, rodeo where locals called the promoters "nigger-lovers." On such occasions, Gary never says anything. He just focuses on the ride.

"That's been my theory from day one: Just go take care of business and don't worry about what people [are] thinking," he says. "'Cause sometime I'll be the only black in the whole town, not just the only black cowboy at the rodeo."

He'd like to see more blacks in the PBR and other organizations -- there are a lot of talented cowboys out there, he says, but many are held back.

"There's a lot of black cowboys right here in Houston that can be in the top ten in the world champions," he says. "Some of them just don't have the money to go, and some of them just want to stay here with their family and be a family man. It's kind of puzzling to see all this good talent go to waste, just hanging around here and just going to little rodeos when they can go to the big rodeos and win big money."  

A professional rodeo career requires sponsorship, and for many black cowboys, including Gary's nephew Justin, sponsors are hard to come by. Gary has the backing of a boot company, a stock contractor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Richard is backed by his own wallet.

But Gary senses a drive in his nephew that he says will keep him from languishing on the small-time circuit.

"Justin kind of reminds me of me when I was coming up as a kid," Gary says. "I was always bugging the bull riders…I wanted to be a world champion. And that's what he has in mind."

Last year's PRCA calf-roping champ rode a $75,000 horse. Fancy cost $12,500.

A good-looking tan quarter horse with a patch of white above his mane, 13-year-old Fancy has served Richard well. But most of the competition rides superior stock.

As Richard says, "I'm driving a '72 Pinto, and everyone else is pulling up in 2002 Dodges."

A decent horse costs $20,000, minimum, Richard says. Food, grooming and incidentals add up to about $300 a month.

Fancy's upkeep for the amateur circuit isn't exactly killing Richard -- he won nearly $30,000 last year -- but the pro circuit costs a fortune. Amateur contenders have to buy a permit and win a certain amount of money ($2,500 in the PBR, $1,000 in the PRCA) to break into the semi-pros. From there, they have to rack up a lot of points in a lot of rodeos to make the pros. The PBR and the PRCA then choose the top 45 and top 15 pros, respectively, to compete in the world championships.

Richard bought Fancy mostly with bull-riding winnings. Bull riders don't have to share the pot with anyone. Cowboys who ride borrowed horses give a quarter of their winnings to the owner. It pays to have your own horse.

So Richard continues to save his bull-riding money. A big splurge for him was buying a modest wristwatch two months ago, to reward himself for putting in a great eight seconds at an Atlanta rodeo. He wears the watch on his left wrist, just above an ever-present rubber band. The strange thing about the rubber band is that, even though he wears it every day, it has no meaning. It's not like he has a special rubber band, either -- when one breaks, he just slaps on another. He started wearing one in junior high for no reason and has kept the tradition ever since.

So far the benefits of riding have outweighed the risks. Richard says he's got "the No. 1 Man" on his side. Faith's a good thing when you're straddling a Mack truck with horns.

"I haven't been stepped on since Easter Sunday," he says. Then he gets up to knock on a wooden coffee table.

Here's the negotiation between a rider and the bull: The rider gives a 1,700-pound savage, spastic behemoth an eight-second window to throw him off its back and stomp him on the head. In exchange, the rider gets to feel like Superman.

Richard's worst bull- riding experience was back in a high school rodeo, when he was boasting about being the best rider out there. When his bull flew the chute, Richard got hung up in the ropes and slid down the animal's side, so he was parallel to the ground. The bull ripped off Richard's protective vest and shirt and left a hoofprint on his back.

His best experience was about five years ago, at a rodeo on Houston's north side. By the time he got on his bull, he had already won in calf-roping. Eight seconds later, when he jumped off the bull, he knew he'd killed in that event, too. He threw his hat down and did a little dance -- the bull was still running around, but he didn't care. And neither did 16-year-old Demetrie Harrison, who hopped the fence, pulled Richard's hat down over her eyes, and danced toward him as an angry bull thrashed around the ring. Richard and Harrison are still together.

It helps to have her support, as well as his family's. There's often a lot of camaraderie among competitors in a rodeo. But Richard's skin sometimes keeps him out of the loop. He says you get used to it after a while, that sidelong stares are just a part of being black. It's not a shock, like when he was younger.

In those days, he says, "It was like, 'Okay, welcome to the real world.' "

Back at Smitty's Cow Palace, Richard's bull thrashes toward the corner between the chute and an elevated timekeepers' station that blocks the view for those packed into the wooden bleachers.  

The next part happens faster than a photo flash. You might think time stops for an eight-second bull ride, like risking your life deserves a cinematic slo-mo, but eight seconds is eight seconds.

"He just stopped," says a wide-eyed woman in the bleachers. Turns out she means the bull. She means that one second the animal's going to kick the moon, and the next second it's frozen. And then a livid Richard stomps into sight, his back to the bull, and throws his dusty gray hat to the ground. Furious about whatever happened in the corner, he seems to forget about the enraged, deadly brute behind him. And that's when the bull snaps out of the spell and charges.

Richard reacts to the crowd's collective gasp, pivoting just in time and booking for the chute while the clowns run interference. The bull busts a U at the fence and aims for the clown, who's either brave enough or dumb enough to retrieve Richard's hat. The blank-faced clown guns it toward the bleachers, the bull's horns bumping him as he hops the fence and nearly squashes a child in the front row.

Atop the timekeepers' station, Smitty announces the scores in his mesmerizing baritone: 68 points for Richard. Seven under Pink Shirt.

Tonight's performance is one Richard would like to forget. But he walked away safe, as did the other riders, and that's all he asks for in the prayer he gives before every ride. He always asks God to let the riders perform to the best of their ability and to let the bulls buck to the best of theirs. For someone so competitive and bent on the pros, it might seem like he'd throw in a little something about wanting to win, as long as he's at it. But he never does.

His explanation sounds like it could be symbolic of something greater than bull riding. Or, like wearing a rubber band for absolutely no reason, maybe it just means what it means.

"It's not a deal of winning or losing," Richard says. "You gotta ride your bull first."

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