Saluting Black Cowboys
by: Gavin Ehringer
Article from the July 1993 issue of Western Horseman Magazine

Black cowboys had a distinct impact in the Old West, and yet the sport of rodeo has had but a handful of black stars. That seems to be changing, as a new generation of black athletes has taken up ropes, saddles, and riggins to carve out their niche in rodeo history. The following is a tribute to the pioneers and the contemporary contestants who serve as inspiration to today's aspiring black cowboys.
About one in six cowboys on the great 19th century cattle drives was of African descent. Many were former slaves who had mastered the skills of riding and roping. When the drives ended in the 1880's, many of these cowboys joined Wild West shows. The most notable cowboy of the era was Bill Pickett, who is credited with the invention of bulldogging around 1900. Pickett reportedly developed this event by observing bulldogs as they worked cattle. Imitating them, Pickett began to grab bulls and steers by the horns, twisting their necks, and wrestling them to the ground. He sometimes took hold of their noses with his teeth. In a bloody demonstration held in Mexico City. Pickett actually wrestled a huge fighting bull to the ground, and was jeered by the bullfight fans, who were accustomed to the more graceful efforts of the matadors.

Jesse Stahl

Hall of Fame Rodeo Cowboy

Although even casual rodeo followers know about Bill Pickett, very few are aware of other early black rodeo greats such as Jesse Stahl. Stahl,an inductee into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, was a noteworthy saddle bronc rider. Although exceptionally talented, Stahl seldom placed higher than third at the major rodeos. At one rodeo where he'd clearly bested his competitors, Stahl was awarded second place. Perhaps to mock the judges, he rode a second bronc while facing backward.

An old photo of Jesse Stahl riding one the hard way!

Marvel Rogers

All -Around Cowboy

In the 1950's, a top hand emerged from the ranks. Marvel Rogers, who worked for stock contractor Lynn Beutler for many years, was known as a competent all-around cowboy. Cleo Hearn, producer of the Cowboys of Color rodeo series in Texas and Oklahoma, recalls Rogers as an early influence and inspiration to black cowboys like himself.

"Marvel was a great all-around cowboy, but his specialty was bronc riding." remembers Hearn. "He was known to ride with a cigar in his mouth, puffing out a cloud of blue smoke each time the bucking horse touched his feet to the ground. "In the days of segregated rodeo,they'd hold hat rides. They'd put money in the hat to see him ride. And the coboys used to say that those hat rides often paid more than first-place rides in the regular rodeo,"Hearn said. Rogers was a close friend of legendary all-around champion Harry Tompkins, who was quoted as saying, "Rogers was the most-robbed cowboy in rodeo."

Cigar-smoking Marvel Rogers on Pipe Dream at a Tucson rodeo

In defense of the Rodeo Cowboys Association(now the PRCA), there never was a policy that excluded minority competitors. However, until at least the late 1950s, the lack of black cowboys among the pros, as well as an underlying racism, effectively kept mot blacks from competing with whites. To combat that situation, black cowboys of the 1940s and 1950s formed the Southwestern Colored Cowboys Association, which served as a farm league for cowboys who aspired to become professionals. Many of those cowboys graduated to the professional level, and by the 1960s rodeo became integrated enough to enable blacks to succeed in the pro ranks.

Myrtis Dightman

The most successful black cowboy of the 1960's was Myrtis Dightman, a bull fighter turned bull rider from Houston. In 1966, Dightman became the first black cowboy to qualify for the Natinal Finals Rodeo. The following year, Dightman finished third in the bull riding world standings, as close as he ever came to a world title. From 1966 to 1972, Dightman missed qualifying for the NFR only once. Amazingly, Dightman ididn't even pick up a bull rope until the age of 25, and he was still getting on bulls more than 2 decades later. Dightman was sometimes compared to Jackie Robinson. Although he wsn't the first black to compete in the R.C.A., he was the first serious contender for the world title. Though the cowboys backed the talented athlete, the fans weren't always sure how to take him. When traveling, Myrtis often slept in his car rather than risk being turned away from hotels. Dightman took it all in good humor. In the dangerous world of professional rodeo, he worried more about Brahma bulls than he did about racial prejudice.

His career helped pave the way for an energetic black bull rider from Los Angeles - Charles Sampson.

Charles Sampson
The 1982 PRCA World Bull Riding Champion

In his forth year in the pro ranks - 1982, Sampson wrote his name in the PRCA history books as the first black cowboy to win a world championship. It was fitting that Myrtis Dightman was the first to offer his hand in congratulation. Sampson, an unabashed promoter of rodeo, has been a high-profile role model for aspiring cowboys of all colors and races. In addition to competing at numerous all-black rodeos and rodeos of color, Sampson has produced a number of championship rodeo schools and appeared in numerous advertising campaigns. Currently, Sampson is appearing in a nationwide advertising campaign for Timex watches. The ad declares, "Bulls have punctured his lungs, broken his sternum, his ribs, his ankle, his wrist, his fingers, his legs(four times), and shattered every bone in his face." The ad copy didn't have to mention that Sampson is a cowboy who takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

In many ways,Sampson exemplifies the black rodeo cowboy of today. "We're athletes with a love for horses and the cowboy life. Most black cowboys are athletes, urban cowobys," said Cleo Hearn. This is not a unique situation among all cowboys today. Although many cowboys still come from rural ranching backgrounds, an increasing number are growing up in towns and cities.

Dwayne Harbo, Leon Coffee, and Ervin Williams all fit the mold. Coffee and Hargo both roe to the top in the sport's most dangerous profession-bull fighting. Hargo grew up in San Bernardino and developed a love for horses and an admiration for cowboys. As a kid,he looked up to champion cowboys such as Don Gay, noting that there weren't many black cowboys to serve as role models. But when he reached the pro ranks, Hargo found a support group. Sampson,along with legendary bull fighter Wick Peth and 1970 world champion Gary Leffew, signed his PRCA card. Those impressive signatures lend credibility and prestige to Hargo's resume.

Leon Coffee of Austin,Tex., who was voted 1982 Clown of the Year by the cowboys, often worked with Hargo to develop the yourger man's skills as an entertainer. Ervin Williams of Tulsa has carved out an impressive career as a bull rider, earning four trips to the National Finals in his 7-year career. Williams captured third place in the world standings in 1989, and is always a contender in the bull riding world title race.

Among the current crop of black rodeo contestants, Fred Whitfield, CypressTex., is the most likely to pave the way for a new wave of black rodeo performers. Unlike the cowboys who have made their mark at the rough-stock end of the arena, Whitfield has excelled as a calf roping specialist. He burst onto the scene in 1989, winning Rookie of the Year and Calf Roping Rookie of the Year awards. A year later, he became the first black cowboy to win the title of world champion calf roper. "Fred is the most athletic calf roper in the business - he's got great speed, strength, timing, and accuracy. When he's focused right and his horse is working good, he's unbeatable," said eight time world champion Roy Cooper, a close friend and traveling partner.

Whitfield hopes his success encourages other black ropers to compete on the national level. "There's a lot of good ropers around Houston. Most of them stay home because they lack confidence and finances to do this full time," he said. Thanks to the efforts of rodeo promoters such as Hearn and the successes of Whitfield, Sampson, and others, that situation may change.

To the Black communities of my generation, the black cowboy was nonexistent," Hearn said, " Presently, of the 10,000 PRCA members, there are only about 120 black cowboys." Hearn says his goal in rodeos of color is to give blacks, Indians, and Hispanics a place to hone their skills and prepare them for professional rodeo. "I want to graduate five or ten cowboys to the pro ranks every year," he said. His efforts and the successes of today's generation of black cowboys should make the future more promising for those coming on.

Return to Home Page