In Fort Bend, Black cowboys helped shape the county’s history

As the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wraps up, many are focused on the area’s cowboy culture. Black cattle hands living just outside the city played a key part in that history.

By Natalie Weber, Houston Public MediaMarch 13, 2024 9:45 am, , ,

From Houston Public Media:

As cars buzzed past on a nearby road and an aircraft hummed overhead, crowds of children gathered in a field on the George Ranch in Richmond, which is located about 30 miles southwest of downtown Houston.

They were there on a field trip for the ranch’s Black Cowboy Student Day in February.

From behind a fence, a throng of cattle hands raced past on their horses, herding steers into a barn.

“Hey-yup! Hey-yup!” one of the cowboys shouted, urging on his horse.

As the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo continues, many residents are turning their focus to the area’s cowboy culture.

But just outside the city, some are working to preserve a key piece of that heritage: the history of the region’s Black cowboys.

The George Ranch first started as a plantation that relied on the labor of enslaved African Americans.

“He had a house boy, a yard boy and a boy that worked the cows,” Larry Callies explained from his museum in Rosenberg. “He was called a cow boy.”

Callies, who runs the Black Cowboy Museum, says the first cowboys were enslaved African Americans. White men were known as cow hands.

That is until Hollywood learned of the term.

“They didn’t know where the cowboy came from,” Callies said. “And they white-washed it.”

Natalie Weber / Houston Public Media

Larry Callies gives a tour of the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg.

Black cowboys helped shape Fort Bend County’s history. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they played a key role in the George Ranch’s operations.

One such cowboy was Buster Jackson, an assistant foreman on the ranch.

According to the George Foundation, he served as the George family’s second-in-command from the 1930s on.

Clarence Jackson – known as “C” Jackson in the rodeo world – is a distant relative of Buster Jackson.

“I heard about him from my dad, and my uncles that owned the arena there at McBeth,” he said. “They used to always talk about Buster Jackson, how he was a cowboy.”

“C” Jackson and his cousins participated in Black Cowboy Day to give kids a glimpse into the life of a cowboy. Most of the Jackson family lives in the McBeth area, where they operate a rodeo.

Another legendary cowboy – Willie Thomas, Sr. – was raised on the George Ranch.

Known as the “Jackie Robinson of rodeo,” Thomas was inducted into the Bull Riding Hall of Fame and the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame.

At his first rodeo, Thomas put his rope on the bull backward. That’s according to his son, Willie Thomas Jr.

“He said the first bull throwed him off,” Thomas Jr. said. “From then on, he don’t remember the last time he was throwed off from a bull. And he was a hell of a bull rider.”

But Thomas Sr. faced his share of racism in the rodeo world.

In his first professional rodeo, in 1953, timekeepers denied him the win, even though he successfully completed his final bull ride, according to the George Foundation.

Another time, his son recalls, they went to a rodeo in Cheyenne, where he was only allowed to ride after the show when all the spectators had left.

“He opened up the door for some more Black cowboys to come in behind him,” Thomas Jr. said. “A couple of them went to the national finals and one of them was a world champion.”

Natalie Weber / Houston Public Media

Willie Thomas Jr. holds a belt buckle that belonged to his father.

Callies, who runs the Black Cowboy Museum, also once worked at the George Ranch.

A girl drew his picture for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, winning first place. The drawing sold for $205,000 and copies brought in another $900,000.

But because of a waiver Callies had signed while working at the George Ranch, he never saw a cent.

Callies sees his work now, at the museum, as a calling from God. A former country and western singer, he suffered damage to his voice.

During a museum tour earlier this year, Callies walked guests through two rooms filled with pictures and artifacts, weaving together historic facts with anecdotes from his own life.

He recounted the story of when he first felt called to open the museum.

“I said, ‘God, I can’t even talk. Why do you want me to open up a museum?’ He said ‘I want you to step out in faith,'” Callies recalled.

Now, the county plans to partner with Callies to move his museum to Kendleton, a freedmen’s town in west Fort Bend County.

The new location will more than triple the size of the museum.

Whether educating the public or competing in rodeos, Callies and others say they’re carrying on the work of their ancestors.

Bradley Jackson – another distant relative of Buster Jackson – says he’s passing on the cowboy legacy to his son.

“I’m trying to be the best that I can, to show him what it’s all about and trying to make a hand,” Jackson said at the Black Cowboy Student Day. “He’s with us every day learning.”

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