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Stephanie Archive



Open Plains and the Smell of Hard Work

Benny Harper is a 75-year-old cowboy.
It was a balmy night in Rockdale, Texas, sometime at the turn of the 20th century. A lone cowboy named Bill Pickett was bringing in the herd. All of a sudden, a longhorn bolted out of the corral and headed for the hills. This 500-pound beast had tested the cowboy's patience all day. Now it was time for a showdown. And Bill had an idea.

Cowboys on the range
He rode his horse alongside the steer and leaped atop its back. The massive creature bucked furiously, but Bill managed to wrestle it down by the horns. As the steer struggled and snorted, Bill did something no man had dared do before him. He turned the steer's head upright and bit him right on the lip. The beast went limp and the cowboy was catapulted into rodeo star fame.

Clearly, this was no ordinary cowboy. Bill Pickett was a man who taught the business to celebrity cowboys Tom Mix and Will Rogers. A man whose picture would someday be featured on a postage stamp. A man who traveled the country during the height of racial segregation and earned people's respect despite the color of his skin.

That's right. Bill Pickett was African-American.

I know what you're thinking: Cowboys weren't black back then! They all looked like John Wayne!

Cowboys have to buck a bull for at least eight seconds.
Well, if you're talking about Hollywood, you are correct! But in the Real World, one out of three cowboys was black. Some became legends in their own right, such as Bronco Sam -- a cowboy so brave, they say nothing ever scared him. Jesse Stahl amazed his peers by riding broncos backward while holding a suitcase. One Horse Charlie saddled up with the Shoshone Indians. And Bill Pickett perfected the death-defying technique known as "bull-dogging."

In fact, some historians contend that the very origin of the word "cowboy" was black. Children of former slaves used to be cowhands on ranches, and were always called "boy" - as in, "Hey boy, go feed the cows." Eventually, the two words were put together for "cowboy."

I'll let you in on another secret. The very first American cowboys were neither black nor white. They were Latinos! The Spanish conquistadors who came to New Mexico in the late 16th century are usually credited as being the first skilled horsemen, but plenty of historians say that the modern-day cowboy descended from the ranch hands who labored in the haciendas of colonial Mexico. These latter cowboys - also known as vaqueros - shaped the culture and folklore of the Southwest. Being the proud descendent of a long line of vaqueros, I've written loads on this topic - see my dispatch on the King Ranch for details!

Neda and I were psyched about our assignment of documenting the history of cowboys of color. We heard a rumor that some cowboys met every Sunday in Yoakum, Texas, to bust bulls, so we headed south to the Lone Star State to investigate. That's where we met Benny Harper, a 75-year-old legend in local black history.

He was sitting on the bleachers, taking long drags off a Marlboro cigarette and watching the cowboys in the ring break in the bulls. He was dressed in dusty blue jeans, elephant-skin cowboy boots, a Wrangler workshirt and a baseball cap. When I said hello, he extended his hand. He had the kind of grip that could break a peach pit in two, but he shook my hand gently. I only had to ask a few questions before the stories started rolling.


Dancin' the night away

"My daddy was a cowboy and I lived on ranches all my life. I started riding when I was 8 and have been doing it ever since. I've worked at the L.K. Ranch, the Pitchfork Ranch, the Lazy 11 Ranch, the 74 Ranch and the Cannon A Ranch. The only other thing I've done in my life is truckdriving, but I'd much rather be on a horse than in a truck," he said with a central Texas twang.

His comments made me smile. My horseback-riding uncles always said the same thing - which is amazing considering the daily hardships cowboys endured. Their workday started at the crack of dawn and continued well past dusk regardless of the weather. Rain, sleet or snow, there were horses to be broken, fences to be mended and equipment to be tested. Mr. Harper used to work the cattle and described his duties as follows: "You had to vaccinate 'em, brand 'em, and if they got sick you had to doctor 'em."

Then there was roundup. Back in the day, cowboys used to herd cattle for months at a time. They ate straight from the chuckwagon - steak, potatoes, beans, cornbread - and slept beneath the stars. There were a number of demons in the great wide open - rattlesnakes, scorpions, cactus - but the worst was loneliness.

"Girls don't want a cowboy for a boyfriend, because they ride off for a long time and get hurt. So I was a loner, always by myself," Mr. Harper said.

Cowboys in the house!
Cowboys of color also had to deal with the burden of discrimination. Rodeo king Bill Pickett sometimes had to pretend he was Indian so he'd be allowed to compete in arenas that banned blacks. Rather than ride up front with the other cowboys, he often had to sit in the back of buses and trains due to Jim Crow laws. I read several accounts of blacks and Latinos getting paid less than their white counterparts, even if they had more duties.

But according to Mr. Harper, those days are long gone.

"In all the ranches I worked at, we were half black and half white, with a bunch of Mexicans. We never did have no problem with one another. I was always treated with respect. If you could do the job, you had the job," he said.

Mr. Harper's gruff voice softened as his 2-year-old grandson, Willie, joined us on the bleachers. "You ready to ride one of them bulls?" he asked the child as he pointed at the steer raging in the pen.

Bennie Harper and his 2-year-old grandson, Willie.
Benny Harper with his 2-year-old grandson Willie Willie didn't bat an eyelash when a bull suddenly came crashing into the nearby chain-link fence. "Yeah," he said. "I ride bull."

We all laughed. Then I asked Willie if he wanted to be a cowboy when he grew up. His grandfather responded for him.

"I hope he do," he grinned as he gazed at the setting sun. "I sure hope he do."


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - The heroic and fateful quest of the Nez Perce
Nick - Massacres and mayhem: manifest destiny at its worst
Nick - Sitting Bull wins one for the Lakota Indians!
Irene - We don't need no thought control
Making A Difference - Tell Captain Morgan and his Kind to Take a Hike! Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo