Cowboys of Color Rodeo offers glimpse into a more diverse American frontier

Historically, onscreen cowboys have mostly been white. But the family-run Cowboys of Color Rodeo is showing people the real Old West looked much different.

By Toluwani Osibamowo, KERA NewsOctober 19, 2023 9:30 am, , ,

From KERA News:

It had all the familiar sights and sounds of a rodeo. Calf-roping. Bucking horses doing their best to throw their riders. Lots of big hats, big belt buckles and finely stitched boots.

But this rodeo also was very different. At the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, which recently appeared for two nights at the State Fair of Texas, nearly all the competitors were Black.

That’s not a novel concept for one of the rodeo’s showrunners Harlan Hearn, but he said he enjoys seeing newcomers learn about the diverse rodeo in real time.

“Every year it’s the same thing,” Hearn said. “We meet people that go, ‘I had no idea. I’ve been in Dallas for 20 years. I had no idea.’ We’ve been here. But that’s part of that mission, is that we have to keep introducing it.”

And it also reflects the significant role that cowboys of color played in the Old West, a role that often was underemphasized — or even absent — onscreen and in history books.

This is the third year Hearn and his family have partnered with the State Fair to host the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, a nearly 50-year-old traveling competition that showcases the talents of rodeo competitors of color across the country.

Rodeo founder Cleo Hearn, Harlan Hearn’s father, already had an accomplished rodeo career by the time he and a group of Black cowboys created the Texas Black Rodeo in 1975. The Oklahoma native joined the Black rodeo scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his eldest son said, and in 1970 became the first African American to win a tie-down roping competition at a major professional rodeo.

The Texas Black Rodeo also partnered with Fair Park’s African American Museum in the 1980s to begin an annual Juneteenth show. It became the Cowboys of Color Rodeo in 1995 to reflect the inclusion of Hispanic and Native Americans.

Rodeo life is all Harlan Hearn and his three younger brothers — Eldon, Robby and Wendell — have known. Their father has now retired and taken a back seat in producing the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, but the brothers and their own families still oversee rodeo events with their father’s original goal: to educate and entertain.

“We’ve done rodeo all these years and still there’s a ton of education that needs to take place,” Hearn said. “So, we entertain. We try to give them little bits of understanding that from a cowboy of color perspective, the Old West was just that — cowboys of color.”

White cowboys traditionally dominated the Western film and television genre. But historians estimate that as much as 25% of cowboys in the late 1800s were Black and 12% were Mexican, though these numbers vary across sources.

Despite what they contributed, cowboys of color also endured overt discrimination — well into the 20th century.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Cowboys help Lamar Hankins onto a bronc in the shoot during the Cowboys of Color Rodeo at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas.

Harlan Hearn said he recalls stories of his father being kicked out of rodeo spaces because he was Black or told he couldn’t compete until after paying customers had gone home. The struggle of Cleo Hearn and his contemporaries, Harlan Hearn said, was what paved the way for him, his brothers and other rodeo competitors to excel in the sport, and they don’t take that for granted.

“We know enough about that history to know that it needs to continue so that future cowboys and cowgirls have that opportunity,” Hearn said. “It gets better for them. The money’s getting better. They should be able to have their opportunity to win.”

Partnering with the Cowboys of Color Rodeo is also a return to tradition for the State Fair itself. Daryl Real, senior vice president of agriculture and livestock at the State Fair, said the fair put rodeos on hiatus in the mid-1980s as their popularity dwindled.

Rodeos returned to the fair in 2018, and, after returning from a pause during the pandemic in 2021, Real said fair management was looking for ways to revitalize the rodeo tradition. He said the Hearn family’s rodeo offered an opportunity to reflect the diversity of Texas like never before.

“Cleo Hearn is a legend in his own right,” Real said. “And so, getting to work with somebody that has made their mark already … it’s an automatic pass, that we have professional folks in here that know how to put on an event and do it well.”

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Marcus Verser Jr., 4, plays with a lasso in the shoots during the Cowboys of Color Rodeo at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas.

The rodeo welcomed newcomers like 24-year-old Naya Dixon, whose friend invited her to the Oct. 13 rodeo. Dixon, a New Orleans native, said she was nervous to see some of the more intense rodeo acts like steer wrestling, but she was interested in seeing cowboys of color compete for the first time.

“I didn’t even know they had a Cowboys of Color Rodeo,” Dixon said. “So, just (for this to be) my first rodeo, I’m definitely more excited about that, to see what our culture do, and hopefully we stand out and we get it done.”

Steer wrestling competitor Pat Hooper was most focused on getting the best time in his event with his 17-year-old quarter horse Tex, brushing him down in the stables before Friday’s show. But at this point in his decades-long career, the 53-year-old from Athens said he’s taking on more of a mentor role for younger cowboys.

Hooper said he’s been in the rodeo world since the creation of the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, and he, too, wants to help carry on the legacy of his family and other pioneers of the sport.

“Being a Black cowboy, there’s something more special to us because it’s almost like a lost part of history that wasn’t told in the history books,” Hooper said. “So, we kind of use every platform we can to bring light to the younger generation that, hey, there are Black cowboys.”

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