Be sure to also check out our blog post — Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: These Are the Maps You Need
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."
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.
From the 1860s to the 1900s, as many as 5,000 to 8,000 black cowboys drove cattle across the Texas plains, which is a quarter of all cowboys in the Lone Star State, according to McRae.
Francies grew up poor in what is now west Houston off of Tanner Road in the 1930s and '40s. He was one of eight siblings, with four older sisters and three younger brothers, and they all attended the one-room schoolhouse for "colored" children.
The civil rights movement was still three decades away, and though he'd seen one victim of a lynching, for the most part he'd been able to fly under the radar of the Ku Klux Klan. He married in 1953 — met his wife in church — and fathered four children. He'd learned to ride from his father, and wanted to pass on those cowboy skills to his own children.
He had a great job at Southwestern Bell, but he wanted them to have a reminder of their roots and didn't want to forget his past.
And so he asked Mayor Lockett for an application to go on the Salt Grass Trail Ride.
The next day, Francies turned in a blank application in protest to Lockett.
"Why don't you start your own trail ride?" asked Lockett. "Why, you could be the very first black trail boss." Francies thought about that option. If they would not have him on their trail ride, perhaps he could organize his own. But Francies also suspected Lockett was doing his own brand of squeezing him out of the trail ride.
"Lockett was a politician. He had a tendency to lead you in a direction away from him," says Francies. "He felt if the Negro started a trail ride, they wouldn't have enough money to sustain it. It was a rich man's game, but we came up with our own method."
The method was a simple one: "Act rich." "There are two kinds of people," says Francies. "The rich and the poor, or the haves and have-nots, and I'll break it down even further. There is the white and the black. Now, which do you suppose the rich and the poor are?"
The white trail riders had enough time and money to endure the entire week. Francies simply did not, but he knew that a strong poker face could create that illusion.
"A horseback rider is a horseback rider," explains Francies. "If he puts his left leg on the left side of the saddle and his right leg on the right side and keeps his mind in the middle, no one can tell if he is rich or poor."
But a poker face only goes so far. Saving money was going to be essential.
"If a typical rider eats cornbread and beans 365 days a year, all you have to do is put some away every meal and you would have no cost for food. A rider could have beans and you could feed your horse cornbread."
Francies would also need to better define his mission to build support for his proposal.
He wrote up a mission statement, then sent a penny postcard to Dr. E.B. Evans, then president of Prairie View A&M College, requesting an audience. It read: "I would like to have a trail ride that would establish an avenue for negros to participate in the Fatstock Show and Rodeo."
Evans called Francies to meet with him and other faculty and staff on the university's campus to discuss this trail ride. "I was nervous, as Dr. Evans was an educated man, and it was my first time to ever go into a brick home, but I was on adrenaline," says Francies.
After a short introduction, Francies dived into the three reasons he wanted to start his own trail ride. First, he wanted to continue to acknowledge and bridge the gap between modern day and the history forged by the Buffalo Soldiers, the black cavalry of the Old West.
"I also want to promote agriculture and rodeo interests in young black Americans," said Francies. "And I want to establish an avenue whereby graduates of black agricultural and mechanical colleges would have contacts with more agricultural-related careers," Francies said. Francies had seen the agricultural world slip away from African Americans as they took more urban jobs.
Evans had a few concerns. "I know Reese Lockett," Evans said. "I know about the conduct of the trail ride — they drink, act rowdy."
"We have an interest in promoting agricultural and horsemanship as a group," said Francies. "Not to participate in drinking, or any vices."
"If you can do that, I can support you 100 percent," said Evans. They decided to name the trail ride after the college, and one year later they successfully organized the Prairie View Trail Ride.
In 1958, Francies and six others would embark on the trail ride bound for the rodeo. They had pooled their resources and come up with all the necessary provisions. "My father-in-law lent us two mules and a covered wagon," says Francies. "One time it got so cold we had to take the tarp off of it to lay under one night."
The 96-mile horseback journey came with the typical hardships, but the atypical would soon begin once they met up with the other trail rides in downtown Houston. On Sabine Street, other trail rides had gathered to form the parade line into the gates of the rodeo. Francies's cavalry definitely stuck out, as they were the only dark-skinned riders in a sea of white faces.
"The parade marshal called us in," recalls Francies. "Just then a man on his horse from the trail ride behind started to cut in and he yelled, 'I will die in Hell before I let a group of niggers ride in front of me!'"
The commotion caused such a stir that the horses in the trail ride behind Francies raised up one at a time like dominoes.
"There was a girl on a red and white horse, couldn't have been more than 17," says Francies. "Her horse raised up and her foot caught the stirrup and she flew back to the ground. Her head hit the pavement."
"I didn't know her, or even know her name, but someone told me that little girl died from that incident," Francies says.
While an innocent death was not the way Francies and company would have wanted to remember breaking the racial barrier to the rodeo, for the first time since the trail days of 1860, the trails were integrated once more.
Francies continued his role as the first black trail ride boss through to the next year and saw his riders double in number. The experiment had been a success, and the racial tension seemed to be evaporating. Year after year, Francies was able to keep the trail ride going, and every year gained bigger numbers and less racial uprising.
In 1967, tensions rose as Francies and the Prairie View trail riders rode into Houston.
"That year the rodeo changed the staging area from Sabine to Memorial Park," said Francies. "There was a city ordinance that prohibited blacks from gathering in parks."
The city ordinance came about as an aftermath of the Houston Riot of 1917, a confrontation between 150 African American soldiers from the Camp Logan barracks (located in Memorial Park) and the Houston Police Department.
But there was no violence this time. "They had brought the National Guard in," said Francies. "They let us set up camp and stay overnight just like the rest of the riders."
"You don't achieve anything by fighting," says Donald Wayne Middleton, the 57-year-old chairman of the nonprofit Black Heritage Society in Houston. "You achieve by negotiating." Middleton was Francies's protege for a time and has accompanied Francies on a trail ride.
"In 1965, the attorney general did a survey on how many Houston residents owned horses inside the city limits," said Middleton. "They were curious as to why there were so many and what they were doing with them in the city. The youth had all answered, 'to ride in the Prairie View Trail Ride.'"
The trail ride that Francies had organized was gaining in popularity and was blazing more than just a trail to the rodeo each year. The trail simultaneously paved other avenues for black heritage.
In 1993, 35 years after Francies broke the color barrier on sanctioned trail rides to the rodeo, rodeo officials realized they needed to have a committee that represented African-American interests.
"Black cowboys were a major part of the history of the rodeo," says rodeo VP and CEO Leroy Schafer. "One of the seven events in rodeo was invented by an African American."
Schafer is talking about bulldogging, or, as it is better known today, steer wrestling.
"When you only have seven events and one was invented by an African American, that's pretty impressive," says Schafer.
It was Bill Pickett (1870-1932), the son of a former slave, who invented the sport of wrestling a 450-750-pound steer to the ground. Pickett was known as the "World's Colored Champion" in the early rodeo days, before the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
Middleton sees the rodeo as a great way to expose all its many visitors to the part of black history that involves the rodeo and trail rides. His society puts on an annual gala, which last year raised $100,000 in scholarships, helping send 20 African-American students to college.
Francies, now 82, is retired in Abilene, Texas. He spends most of his time at the senior center, sharing stories about his days on the trail or how he actually prefers mules to horses because they're a ton smarter.
From the trail ride he organized more than 50 years ago, three more rodeo-sanctioned African-American trail rides have started. An estimated 1,500 African-American riders now take part in the Houston Rodeo every year, and even more can be found riding on organized trails during the weekend.
"I better see you at my trail ride," Cowgirl Ollie Wilkerson could be heard saying to other riders as the Betty Love Trail Ride neared its end. "Mine will be this summer and will leave at sunrise on the beach!"
A few horse-lengths back, a cowboy known by everyone as Midnight waved furiously, with hat in hand, from the back of a covered wagon, letting the parade know that their daylong journey would be coming to an end.
Soon the clicking of the horses' shoes against the highway pavement would quiet and the weekend riders would trailer up their horses and return home. Some to ranches, some to the inner city and some to their suburban retreats. Until they return for the next ride.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.