The spirit of the American West is largely embodied by the stories of trailblazing, sharp-shooting, horseback riding cowboys. These legends as we know them from the narratives romanticized by popular culture and scenes out of John Wayne films, have been (and are still) mostly depicted by white Americans often with little attribution to the one-in-four African-American cowboys who historically account for a big portion of “Old West” tales as they played a crucial role in cattle raising in the United States. It is actually argued that the term “cowboy” comes from the African-American experience of cattle raising.
And, let’s not forget about music and the role that African-Americans have played in our beloved country music genre, it’s a commonly-known fact that country music owes its most profound roots to black musicians and artists.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we’ve listed some of our favorite African-American figures throughout western culture—drawing from the past and the present. Black voices, heroes, musicians, and coolest of cool passed and living legends whose stories and style embodies the spirit of a “cowboy” in the truest sense.
Could not do this list without mention of Bill, a legend in the world of rodeo and creator of the famous “bulldogging” technique, which he conducted for audiences around the world and inspired Hollywood’s “Bulldogger”, 1929. Today his legacy is far-reaching and ever-present in the “Bill Pickett Invitational Only” annual all-Black rodeo in Hayward, California—pretty cool.
Nat Love’s “exploits have made him one of the most famous black heroes of the Old West”. Despite slavery-era statues forbidding literacy for black Americans, he learned to do just that. Love traveled through the country and found work as a cowboy working with cattle ranchers. His life and legacy as a cowboy are depicted in his famous autobiography. Indulge on his full autobiography “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, ‘Deadwood Dick’”.
Born into slavery, John Ware was a naturalized Canadian cowboy who was known for his excellent ranching and horsemanship skills. Upon his freedom he went to Texas where he learned these skills and became a cowboy through and through. Like every folk hero there are many stories about his adventures and contributions to the cowboy lore of the time. The Canadian Encyclopedia has good stuff on John Ware’s life if you’re interested.
Myrtis, for us new to the rodeo world, was an American bull rider who started his career in Houston, Texas. Known as the “Jackie Robinson” of rodeo he is a rodeo hall of fame inductee. He was the first African-American cowboy to compete at the National Rodeo Finals. He was a big inspiration to Charles “Charlie” Sampson who is also known as the first African-American to win a world championship in professional rodeo. Check out this great story on Myrtis on Texas Monthly.
A multi-hyphenate, Charley Pride needs no introduction. Baseball player, service man, and top Billboard country artist at the peak of his career—30 of his songs made it to #1. Charley at one point was one of three African-Americans to play at the Grand Ole Pry. His contributions to music are legendary. If it’s morning (or not) while you’re reading this you gotta play this jam “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin”.
Perhaps without recognition, we’ve rocked out to many of Otis’ songs. As one of the leading African-American figures of early rock and roll, although not well known by the public—he often wrote under the more white sounding pen name “John Davenport”—he is the man behind some of music’s greatest hits. He wrote million-selling songs for Elvis Presley (which he never met in person!), Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark and others. Get “All Shook Up” to Ottis’ legendary jam as played by Elvis here.
Country music and blues star, Deford Bailey, was the first African-American introduced in the Grand Ole Pry, and the first performer to have music recorded in Nashville— an important figure and contributor in Nashville’s burgeoning music industry. Widely known for his skills on the harmonica, he toured and performed with famous country artists in the 30’s and his own compositions were also well-known. He’s also a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee. Check out his unparalleled harmonica skills here.
Born in Dallas, Troy is widely known as an American “hick-hop” and country-rap artist who was dropping hip-hop lyrics in country music way before his very famous successors. His contributions to country music today are not without notice and his influence today can be heard in many of today’s major (notably white) artists. We won’t judge if you get down in your living room to Cowboy Troy’s “I Play Chicken With the Train”.
We couldn’t quite finish this list with making mention of Compton Cowboys—a new generation of “cowboys”. The group of childhood friends from Compton, CA who use horseback riding and equestrian culture to do some good. From helping the inner-city youth to combating Black American stereotypes, we love their positive influence and use of western lore to uplift their community. You can support and buy their recent book here.
If you have an hour to spare to educate yourself of African-American history within the American West, we recommend this C-SPAN by historian Michael Seares titled “Black Cowboys in the American West”.