Steer Wrestling and a History of the 'Black Rodeo'

The Bill Pickett Invitational touts itself as the only black rodeo touring the U.S. Rodeo-goers see more than bucking broncos and cowboys roping longhorns. They get a history lesson too.

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The Bill Pickett Invitational is known as many as simply the black rodeo. It touts itself as being the only African-American rodeo touring the U.S. As NPR's Brakkton Booker recently discovered, rodeo-goers see more than bucking broncos and cowboys roping longhorns. They also see history. He reports on the rodeo's recent stop in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

BRAKKTON BOOKER reporting:

It's billed as the greatest show on dirt, and for many it certainly doesn't disappoint. When you arrive at the Equestrian Center, you can instantly feel the crowd's excitement. Pretty typical stuff at the start of most rodeos, but this ain't no ordinary rodeo. What sets this apart is that everyone here, from the cowboys to the clowns, is black. That's a far cry from the early days when the Bill Pickett Rodeo first came to Los Angeles, according to Cedric Haynes(ph).

Mr. CEDRIC HAYNES (Event Coordinator)): Well, everybody out here (unintelligible) seeing it. And a lot of them already had horses but they didn't rodeo out here.

BOOKER: He's an event coordinator and judge who's traveled with the circuit for 22 years.

Mr. HAYNES: There's only five black cowboys and cowgirls when I come here. There's 100 of them now.

BOOKER: Haynes is compactly built. He's layered in dirt from judging today's doubleheader program that includes bulldogging, or steel wrestling. Bulldogging was invented by Bill Pickett, the famous black cowboy who toured the country performing ranching stunts in the early 1900s.

Haynes says slowly but surely the rodeo named after Pickett is doing two things: helping to change the perception that rodeoing is only for whites, and developing talent that can compete on the big money circuits.

Mr. HAYNES: The first three years I come out here, I bought a young man out here with me by the name of Fred Whitfield. I never dreamed that this guy would be eight-times world champion with the pre-RCA(ph). He's one of the greatest calf wrestlers that ever lived, would ever will live, black or white, and he's in the white man's world.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Announcer: (Unintelligible) Give it up for him. Woo!

BOOKER: One of the real popular events here is the bareback riding competition. It's where the cowboy rides a bucking bronco without a saddle, and tries to stabilize himself with one hand while he holds his free hand above his head. He's only got to stay on for eight seconds, but when a 500-pound animal is trying to toss you off its back it seems like an eternity.

I ask veteran crewmember Lebron Vance(ph) to help me with the action.

Explain to me what's going on.

Mr. LEBRON VANCE (Veteran Crewmember, Bill Pickett Rodeo): Well, right now he's got his hand, the horse is bucking. He's just trying to hang on, and the horse is trying to get him off his back. And they're going - the horse is doing everything he can - twist, turn, buck.

BOOKER: At this moment, the bareback rider is thrown from the horse. He smacks the ground hard and lies motionless on the arena's dirt floor, a somber reminder just how dangerous this sport can be.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Announcer: You know, when you're playing on one of the roughest playing fields of any sporting event, you know the consequences. I think what he's trying to do right now is get some air. What we need you to do is just send those vibes to the arena floor right now. Send those vibes to the arena floor.

(Soundbite of applause)

BOOKER: Emergency teams rush to the arena floor to tend to the injured rider. He eventually walks off under his own power, but is visibly shaken. And then the rodeo goes on.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Announcer: We're going to go back now. Let's go back to our next cowboy.

BOOKER: For most, the rodeo is about camaraderie and fellowship.

Mr. GLYNN TURMAN (Grand Marshal, Bill Pickett Rodeo): Glynn Turman at the Bill Pickett Rodeo, grand marshal for 23 years. What's up?

BOOKER: Turman is best known for his role as Colonel Taylor on the sitcom A Different World. He says the rodeo is like a family reunion, but if that's all your leave with, then you've missed a valuable lesson. Turman says the rodeo is a reminder to blacks' contribution to U.S. history.

Mr. TURMAN: Like I said, this is a part of history that's not paid enough attention to. And we have to kind of take it upon ourselves to find out what we have accomplished in this country...

BOOKER: Turman's grandson, 21-year-old bull rider Mike Gilbeaux(ph), says the term cowboy has been romanticized through novels and Hollywood films.

Mr. MIKE GILBEAUX (Bull Rider, Bill Pickett Rodeo): Traditionally in America, cowboy is seen as some historical figure or folklore, you know, blond hair, blue eyed cowboy, singing with his guitar, roping and stuff like that. When in actuality, cowboy is a slang term designated to all the slaves that handled livestock and everything. Slave owner would be like, go get that cow, boy.

BOOKER: Historians vary on whether this is the word's exact origin. La Wanna Larson is the executive director of the Black America West Museum. She says there's probably some truth in it. But one thing is for sure, that blacks played a big role in opening the West.

Ms. LA WANNA LARSON (Executive Director, Black America West Museum): But few people know that one out of three cowboys were African-American or black. We have a tradition that's steeped in the West but it's rarely told.

BOOKER: This is not news to Lorenzo Brazile(ph), who travels the rodeo as a spectator. Today he's dressed from head to toe in full cowboy gear. His only regret about the rodeo, though, is this:

Mr. LORENZO BRAZILE (Spectator): I just wished that a lot more people would come out dressed. It's a rodeo. Cowboy boots, hats, jeans, you know, real cowboy stuff.

BOOKER: The Bill Pickett Invitational rides into Denver over the weekend, and next month will hold its championships in Washington, D.C.

Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Old Bill Pickett's gone away over the great divide, to the place where all the preachers say both saint and sinner abideā€¦

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