How the Bay Area’s Black Cowboys Carry on a Long Tradition ‹ Literary Hub

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful symbol of self-reliance, strength, and determination than the cowboy. While the archetypal cowboy is a highly romanticized figure, and one that ignores ugly truths about the cost of westward expansion in the United States—namely the theft of Native American lives and land—still it has become synonymous with traits we universally admire. And while the archetypal cowboy is almost always depicted as white, in reality no one better embodies these admirable traits than the Black cowboys who helped shape the culture of the American West.

According to the late historian William Loren Katz, whose book The Black West tackles the whitewashed mythology of the American frontier, people of African descent “rode every wilderness trail—as scouts and pathfinders, slave runaways and fur trappers, missionaries and soldiers, schoolmarms and entrepreneurs, lawmen and members of Native American nations.” Although their stories have largely been untold, more than eight thousand Black cowboys rode in the western cattle drives of the late 1860s. It’s my privilege to introduce you to the men and women who carry on their legacy today.

I have been documenting Black cowboys in the San Francisco Bay Area at the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo since 2008. The families who return to the rodeo each year come to support one another and the other contestants. It’s a testament to their commitment not only to the sport, but to their community. The bonds that are forged at the rodeo are undeniably strong. As cowboy Jamir Graham said to me recently, “My rodeo team is my family.”

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Excerpt from The New Black West: Photographs from America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo by Gabriela Hasbun, published by Chronicle Books 2022.

Top photo: Robert “Cowboy” Armstead, here in 2018, a retired racehorse groomer from Stockton, California, is eager to keep Black cowboy history alive in the West. He was the groomer for Foolish Pleasure at the Kentucky Derby in 1975. “Working the racetracks was the life,” he says. “Traveling town to town, city to city, making all this money. Working the tracks was really good. I love horses. I would do anything in the world to be around them all the time.”

Gabriela Hasbun

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