The placard below a well-worn leather saddle at the entrance to the new Black Cowboys: An American Story exhibition, now on view at the Witte Museum, reveals both an unfortunate fact and the reasoning behind the show.
Serving as a caption to the saddle, the placard reads: “A Black cowboy, whose name has been forgotten, used this saddle in Texas in the early 1900s.”
The exhibition establishes the fact that, though historically overlooked, Black cowboys are an essential part of the history and culture of the American West, having contributed their skills, sweat, and grit to founding the multimillion-dollar cattle ranching industry. Too often, however, these skilled artisans and craftspersons were relegated to anonymity, their efforts mostly unrewarded.
“It is just unbelievable, the absolute omission of African Americans in the cowboy story,” said Aaronetta Pierce, a longtime advocate for the Black community who served as chair of the exhibition steering committee.
For Pierce, Black Cowboys will redress the omission and serve as an educational tool for a generation of young Texans.
“The more our children, as Texans — and this is true for the country — understand the vital role that African Americans have played in the creation of wealth for others,” she said, “the more they understand that they have a place, that they’ve paid their dues, that they belong in this place. And this is one of the stories that will help to reveal that.”
In an informational array of archival photographs, documents, oral histories, and historical objects, the exhibition collects the stories of several Black cowboys, ranchers, ranch owners, and rodeo heroes who drove herds, roped steer, and managed hardscrabble life on the range from the era of New Spain through to the Texas of today.
Some names might ring with familiarity, including Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy of the early 1900s who would earn fame as a rodeo star, and Nat Love, portrayed by Jonathan Majors in the new film The Harder They Fall.
Others emerge from undeserved obscurity, including Hector “Heck” Bazy, played by actor Eugene Lee in a short video based on Bazy’s own account of his cowboy life, and Johana July, a skilled horse-trainer who used an inventive method to calm wild horses: wading them into a river.
Exhibition co-curator Ronald Davis said that growing up in Boston he’d never learned that there was such a thing as Black cowboys. He only discovered that they exist while working in the late 1990s as a voter registrar on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, assigned to attend a Black rodeo in the small municipality of Arcadia.
“And I saw, for the first time, Black cowboys,” Davis said during a media preview event at the Witte Museum on Monday. The revelation proved to be life-changing.
Davis is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, finishing his dissertation on Black cowboys. Early on he’d been astonished to learn that Black Americans had been cowboys for hundreds of years, first working as slaves of Spanish colonialists, then of American ranchers, until emancipation freed them to work for themselves and own ranches.
“That was an epiphany,” Davis said. “African Americans described themselves as cowboys before the Civil War, [and] their labor was … important to that early development of Anglo cattle ranching in Texas.”
Revealing the true complexity of American history is particularly important against the backdrop of current political debates that favor limiting what history can be taught in schools, Davis said.
Black Cowboys “shows that America is multicultural,” he said, “and that there’s a lot more people who are involved in the making of America than just what we’re taught. Adding that complexity helps people have a better understanding of what it means to be American and what it means to be a part of the American polity.”
Black Cowboys: An American Story will be on view at the Witte through April 3, free with regular museum admission.