INDUSTRY — Fans of all ages were captivated July 16 and July 17 by what promoters call the “best show on dirt,” the 32nd annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo at the Industry Hills Expo Center here.
This year’s show began with a tribute to rodeo founder Lu Vason, who died last year at the age of 76. Vason was a producer, media impresario and marketing consultant who is credited with helping form the Pointer Sisters and working with Earth, Wind and Fire, Rose Royce, Gladys Knight, The O’Jays and various other artists.
While attending a rodeo during the 1970s, Vason became inspired to educate others about the influence that black cowboys played in American history. Through the creation of an all-black rodeo, Vason was able to challenge the false perception that African-American cowboys did not exist and that they did not contribute to the development of the West.
“The rodeo is educational; I’m trying to promote the culture of the black West,” Vason once said. “A lot of people can’t relate to the pyramids of Africa. … I believe a lot of us can better relate to black Americans who were a part of developing this country.”
The mission of his rodeo is to celebrate and honor black cowboys and cowgirls and their contributions to building the west.
The show kicked off with cowboys and cowgirls of the senior generation riding into the arena on their horses followed by the second generation of riders and finally the junior and kid riders, symbolizing how they will be the ones to carry on the legacy and the history of the influence of the black West.
The youngest participant, 4-year-old Harrel Williams Jr., stole the show, drawing applause from the audience each time he rode through the arena.
After participating in the junior barrel race, Williams told the audience he had been riding for a record “8 years.”
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the only coast-to-coast national touring black rodeo. Many African Americans in attendance described the event as empowering because it is their introduction to the legacy and presence of African-American cowboys.
The rodeo is named after William “Bill” Pickett, who was a pioneer of the West whose rodeo career spanned decades. He is credited as inventing the rodeo sport of bull dogging, known today as steer wrestling, which consists of a rider riding along side of a steer, grabbing ahold of the steer’s horns and bringing the steer down by digging his feet into the dirt.
Pickett had a gift in the rodeo business and he and his four brothers may have been the first black entrepreneurs through the establishment of The Pickett Bros. Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. In 1905, Pickett attracted the attention of the Miller family whose 101 Ranch Wild West Show was gaining popularity. As Pickett continued to gain notoriety, he toured around the world entertaining audiences with his skills.
The competitions that were the most exciting for the audience were bull dogging, the barrel races and the relay races. Tory Johnson won the bull dogging competition, cowgirl Danielle Clark won the ladies barrel racing event, and team West Coast placed first in the relay race.
In addition to the competitions, the rodeo provides a positive outlet for people to come together and fellowship with one another.
“I get to see everyone and I get to ride with my dad,” said junior cowgirl London Gladney of her rodeo experience. Gladney placed third in the second round of the junior barrel racing competition.
The biggest attraction to the rodeo has been that it highlights the African American presence and impact in. “It is exciting to see us all come together and see something that we don’t often get to see in the city,” said Diann McGlothen who has been coming to the rodeo with her family for the last 17 years.