LIT History: Don't let Hollywood fool you, black cowboys did and do exist
July 28, 2016 at 10:30 am
The LIT History Series is for the Legends, Innovators and Trailblazers that have shaped our culture. I love history, and in turn, I love black history. So much of our culture has been defined by those who’ve come before us, so I write this to capture and chronicle our narratives.
The image of a Black cowboy leaves many of us scratching our heads. Our thoughts about American cowboys consist of the Clint Eastwood-esq, John Wayne, Wyatt Earp-ish white men slinging guns, riding horses, and shooting whiskey bottles in the local saloons.
For decades, Hollywood producers have, much like they’ve done with Egypt and a long list of other stories, completely whitewashed the narrative of cowboys. So much so that unless you live or grew up in a place like Texas or a state with cowboy culture, there’s a chance you’ve probably never even seen an image of a Black cowboy aside from Django Unchained much less one in person.
Disclaimer: Django is certainly not the only movie to showcase Black cowboys, but it is one of the most popular.
The fact of the matter is approximately one in four cowboys were Black, something popular books and Hollywood movies refuse to show. Growing up, I never knew about any of this. I grew up riding horses. I’d learned about the Buffalo Soldiers, and I had been to the Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston (by the way, if you’re ever in Houston, you should go). I’ve seen the Black cowboys at the Houston Rodeo and on cattle ranches in Fort Worth, but seeing a Black cowboy was a recent phenomenon to me.
Little did I know…
It is widely believed that the “Lone Ranger”, the famous cowboy of the TV show and the movie, was inspired by a Black man named Bass Reeves.
Reeves was born a slave, but he escaped to the West where he eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, an expert marksman, and a master of disguise with his Native American sidekick.
Blacks were a huge part of the Western frontier despite what’s told to us in pop culture or taught to us in the classroom.
“The kids who are learning history in our schools are not being told the truth about they way the West was,” says Jim Austin, founder of the National Multicultural Heritage Museum. “I bet you nine out of 10 people in this country think that cowboys were all white – as I did.”
Cherokee Bill, born Crawford Goldsby, was a notorious outlaw whose father was a Buffalo Soldier. His reputation and career as an outlaw rivals the reputation of Billy the Kid.
Bill Picket was a “famous” Black cowboy who toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America, and England, and he was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame 40 years after his death. Had he not been banned from competing against White cowboys, he might have become one of the greatest record-setters in the field.
Why does this matter? The cowboy is one of the most enduring and iconic cultural images of America, and Black people along with other people of color have been erased from this narrative. It further shows that Black people are not monoliths, but we already knew that.
As retired professor of history Mike Searles said as reported by the BBC, “If something is not in the popular imagination, it does not exist.”
We are nerds. We are all sorts of wonderful and magical things. And we are cowboys and cowgirls too.