LOS ANGELES — The existence and legacy of the black cowboy have largely gone unnoticed in history books, folklore and even in Hollywood, making him, some say, the forgotten man of the Wild West.
And even though his story has been whitewashed and unfairly documented in the historical narrative, it doesn’t negate the fact that the black cowboy, who, at one time made up 25% of the actual cowboys in America is an important part of the American identity with a proud and storied history.
Keeping the heritage alive is the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, billed as the “Greatest Show on Dirt.” Currently celebrating its 35th anniversary with the theme “Kickin’ In The Dirt!,” the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, America’s only touring black rodeo will gallop into the Industry Hills Expo Center in the city of Industry July 20-21.
Every year for the last 35 years the rodeo has presented a two-day event that includes cowboys, bucking broncos, high-level competition, food, vendors and down home fun.
Launched in 1984 by Lu Vason, a producer, music promoter and marketing consultant who died in 2015, the rodeo’s mission is to continue and support the legacy of black cowboys and cowgirls.
“We have an obligation to continue to educate society about the role of the black cowboy in the development of the west,” said Valeria Howard-Cunningham, Vason’s widow, who has since remarried and is now the CEO/president and promoter of the rodeo. “The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo shares their stories because no one else gave them credit. We are creating history and perpetuating history as we go.”
When it comes to acknowledging the achievements of black cowboys versus white cowboys, it’s quite a horse of a different color. While white cowboys were credited with developing the Wild West, the black cowboy, many of whom were former slaves, was a rarely acknowledged annotation even though before they became free men they helped settle the Old West, worked the ranches, managed herds, rode the trails and roped and branded cattle.
Black cowboys were known for their ability to ride the nastiest horses that white cowboys wouldn’t ride. When rodeos first started, people didn’t even know there were black cowboys or cowgirls because they were not allowed to participate. Their contributions are seldom in the history books.
The creation of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo flipped the script.
“We want everyone to know about the contributions that were made,” Howard-Cunningham said. “That’s one of the reasons why we have an education component. We want people to know we were there.”
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is only open to black cowboys and cowgirls.
“We try to keep it elite,” Howard-Cunningham said. “People love it because they can claim it as theirs. The rodeo creates an opportunity for the community to come together and have fun and see black cowboys and cowgirls who stand strong today just like they did in the past.”
Historically, the image of the cowboy considered an iconic American figure has been the symbol of a white man full of machismo, determination and power.
“The whitewashing of the black cowboy is just like anything else in life,” said Howard-Cunningham, who admitted she never knew what a rodeo was until she met Vason. “The rodeo is no different than anything else we’ve experienced in this country.
“We are about creating our own history instead of waiting for someone to do something for us. We can’t do anything about the past, but we have control and an obligation to change the future.”
Change is what Vason had in mind in 1984 after attending Cheyenne Frontier Days billed as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. He realized one thing was missing — the black cowboy. Thus was born the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
The annual event was named after Pickett because he was considered the most famous black rodeo performer of all time. It showcases the black cowboy and cowgirl in a number of events.
This year’s events include bareback riding, relay racing, ladies steer undecorating, ladies barrel racing, bull riding, junior barrel racing, junior breakaway roping and bulldogging.
Known as the Dusky Demon, Pickett, the first black inductee into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, would ride his horse alongside a steer, drop to the steer’s head and twist it toward the sky and then bite its upper lip to gain full control before tying its legs.
The audacious move proved to be a showstopper. However, it’s been discontinued due to animal cruelty concerns. Today no one in the Bill Pickett Rodeo is biting an animal’s lips, but Howard-Cunningham says the show is still a crowd-pleaser.
“Anybody who comes to a Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and has the full experience ultimately realizes it’s something they will never forget,” she said.
While the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is about competition, culture, tradition and entertainment, it also supports education and awareness for youth through the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide scholarships to deserving students nationwide and provide education opportunities.
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will take place at the Industry Hills Expo Center, 16200 Temple Ave., in the city of Industry. The show begins at 6:30 p.m. July 20 and 3:30 p.m. July 21.
Tickets range from $22 to $55.
For more information, visit billpickettrodeo.com.