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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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