The Largely Unseen History Of Black Cowboys And Cowgirls

According to Atlanta-based photographer Forest McMullin, around 25 percent of the cowboys responsible for the movement in the American West were African-American. And yet, the stereotypical image of the cowboy remains, consistently, white.

McMullin, a professor of photography at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, was talking to a student in 2014 when he first learned of the existence of rodeos catering exclusively to black cowboys. McMullin was intrigued, and began researching the phenomenon.

“That night, I started doing research on black rodeos and cowboys,” he explained to The Huffington Post. “I discovered that the history of African-American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of other African-American groups — it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media.”

Rennae Isles is a rider from Canton, Ohio. She had recently arrived in Atlanta looking for work as a driver in the film industry. She was attending the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Atlanta, Georgia, in August 2014.

McMullin attended a black rodeo in person, documenting the many individuals he encountered along the way. There was the police detective who’d recently dabbled in calf roping, the 75-year-old rodeo vet who just came to watch, and the young 10th grade boy who was preparing for his post-high school rodeo takeover. McMullin didn’t just photograph his subjects, he learned their stories, piecing together a subculture of American history that remains all too invisible.

McMullin has since attended rodeos in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. “The attendees at these events have been universally welcoming,” he said. “I haven’t had a single person say no when I’ve asked to photograph them. They’re proud of their cowboying heritage and know that it’s largely unknown to the greater American public.”

The artist ultimately hopes his images will provide dignity and respect to a population that’s often overlooked — the black men and women who herded cattle, farmed, and built homesteads across the West.

Forest McMullin
Adam Ezell, Jr., 75, no longer competes in the rodeo. He rode in the grand entry at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 28, 2015.
Forest McMullin
Melissa Ellison is an nurse and Melissa Brown works in accounting for a forest products company. They’re trail riders and were attending the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 2 and 3, 2014.
Forest McMullin
Derry L. Pierce traveled from Suk Village in Illinois to the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 2, 2014. Derry is a police detective and this was only his third rodeo. He planned to compete in calf roping.
Forest McMullin
Erick Williams, 15, is in 10th grade. He enjoys competing in the relay races at the rodeo, but plans to join the Coast Guard when he graduates from high school. He was photographed at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 28, 2015.
Forest McMullin
Sharon Darden is an avid trail rider and would be riding in the grand entry at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 2 and 3, 2014.
Forest McMullin
(L-R) Quentin Welch, Jr., Rico Welch, and D.T. Welch. Quentin and D.T. work for Rico on his horse farm near Talladega, Alabama. They were photographed when they attended a rodeo in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 27, 2015.

Forest McMullin
Bruce Clark, also known as “Doc” and “Doc Holliday”, rides his Tennessee Walker with the Sunset Saddle Club in Memphis, Tennessee. He was photographed at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Memphis on March 28, 2015.

Written by PH

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