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.”
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.