As a ten-year-old boy playing cowboys with friends at my high school in England, I was never allowed to be a cowboy; I could only be a Native American Indian. I was told "Black boys were never cowboys", "Have you ever seen a black cowboy!" I had to admit that I had never ever seen a single black cowboy.
The only one`s we ever saw were your white archetypal squared jawed, all American gun slinging heroes. Even thirty years later I still unaware that black cowboys ever existed. The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, right up to The Marlboro Man, the list is endless, but not one single black cowboy amongst them. But, actually some of the first cowboys were black.
Black men born into slavery found they experienced less open discrimination and a better life on the open range. Even the name `Cowboy` came from slavery days. From the cabin boy to the houseboy, the field boy, the kitchen boy to the cow boy. The fact is that the first ‘Cowboys’ were black men, and the term was intended as a derogatory slight against the black man. Whites most certainly would`ve been called "cowmen". But because of the abilities of the original lack cowboys, the term became associated with strength, skill, and tough, manly ruggedness.
After the American civil war many experienced black cowboys enlisted in the Army Calvary and were known as Buffalo Soldiers. Black cowboys where brilliant horseman, and many went on to become ranch foremen and managers, while others were hired as federal peace officers in the Indian Territories. It is estimated that as many as one-third of all cowboys contracted to drive cattle to markets across America were either black or Mexican. African American cowboys, however, had to survive discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. The lives of these cowhands tell a story of skill and grit, as they did what was necessary to gain the trust and respect of those who controlled their destiny. That meant being the best at roping, bronco busting, taming mustangs, calling the brands, controlling the herd, or topping off horses. Hollywood also played a big part in keeping the cowboy myth alive. We all grew up watching Wild West Tv series and cowboy films, but how many films can you remember that feature black cowboys...not too many. Where American history and identity has been projected by Hollywood and the mass media, the non-white settlers have largely been left out of the story. So I went in search of the forgotten cowboys and to my great surprise found a large and thriving African American cowboy community. From New Mexico to Texas and as far up as the San Francisco Bay Area, many African Americans can trace their lineage right back to the old South. There are many reasons why the history books fail to mention the contribution of the black cowboys. Oral tradition had preserved stories in the past, but Illiteracy played a major role in their exclusion from America`s written history. One reason I`ve heard mention is that the winners, and those who were literate always wrote their history.
I intend to discover more about some of the amazing characters and meet the new breed of 21st century black cowboys working on the many ranches dotted around the Southern states today. Although life as a black professional cowboy still as it’s many challenges, one being the hash economic climate.
I also hope to document the lives of those cowboy`s that compete in the hundreds` of rodeo events across the country. These participants from communities across the US were previously not allowed to compete at the main rodeos, right until the 1980`s. Even though the black cowboys were fundamental to the evolution of the western narrative, which has been so central to the identity of mainstream or "White America".
The support of the cowboy fraternity & `code` can sometimes be very welcome on the road, and the benefit of meeting strong role models is invaluable to the younger participants.
When I came across this community of black cowboys it surprised me how little I knew and also how little was known about the originals of these pioneers of the Wild West. Whenever I asked people, from Europeans to North Americans, the question of black cowboys, I am always answered with a combination of surprise and disbelief.
For too long now, the contributions of the African-American cowboy has been overlooked and almost forgotten in the great history of the American West. Much of American `Western` history as failed to acknowledge the achievements made by these unsung Americans.
My aim is to produce a multimedia exhibition, which will consist of three video short stories, a photographic portrait series and a photographic book, all under the title of `The Forgotten Cowboy`. I want to realize the widest cultural and educational exposure for this captivating and vastly unexplored subject matter globally.
My responsibility as a documentarian photographer/filmmaker is to translate what I see and to produce an objective project, which enlightens, entertains, stirs emotion, educates, and hopefully leaves an indelible impression. And as a visual artist I have a keen curiosity in ever new story that comes my way.
So with your help and support I can create an in-depth chronicle on this much over-looked community that has served it`s nation well over the centuries, without recognition or reward.
These cowboys & cowgirls are proud of their heritage and background and have seen their stories gradually, if very slowly, entering mainstream American history. I would like to help promote and document these `black cowboys` stories.