Bill Pickett was a Black cowboy and rodeo performer who was born during the Reconstruction Era, but lived as a free man. As a boy growing up in Texas, Pickett left school to become a ranch hand, and before long, he had learned and perfected the art of flipping a thousand-pound bull into the dirt. Later in life, he’d become known for inventing “bulldogging,” now called steer wrestling, a highly dangerous move in which a rider on a horse chases a steer, drops from his horse onto the steer and grabs it by the horns before wrestling it to the ground.
“People knew the name Will Rogers, but who they hadn’t heard of was Bill Pickett, and if they had, they didn’t know he was Black,” Lu Vason, founder of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), once explained. To remedy this, over the last 38 years, the BPIR has embodied the spirit of Pickett and criss-crossed America, bringing the thrill of cowboy competition to predominantly Black communities.
Vason has since passed on, but his wife, Valeria Howard Cunningham, continues to run the show. “African Americans have so much to be prideful about other than overcoming slavery,” Cunningham has explained. “This country would not exist today if it was not for African Americans. All aspects of business, life — everything. We have got to change how we look at our history as not something we overcame, but something that we built with pride.”
When the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo recently touched down in the Bay Area, I made sure to catch it on a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. The crowd was predominantly Black, the smiles genuine and the enthusiasm infectious. Between events, I spoke with some of the folks who came out to watch and even take part in the rich legacy of Black cowboys in America (at one point, a quarter of all cowboys in the country were Black).
The Gray Ghost and his daughter, the Frisco Kid, are members of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, an organization that promotes the history of the Buffalo Soldiers of the Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry. “My father is my inspiration. He’s been doing this since before I was born, and I officially joined four years ago,” the Frisco Kid tells me over the din of the crowd. “I would always come out and help them with stuff. So it’s like, ‘Why not join?’” Not that she ever expected that this is where life would take her. “Honestly, I’m kind of a shy person, and yet, here I am doing something like this,” she continues.
She does it for her father, and she does it for the kids: “It makes me feel so glad that they’re happy to see this all. Just watching the joy on their faces, it’s priceless.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Theus, an 86-year-old Black cowboy who lives on a ranch in the Bay Area, has had the honor of opening the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo every year for decades. Once a world champion dress horse presenter, showmanship is his game. “I’ve been riding since I was eight years old,” Mr. Theus says. “I taught myself.”
Loretta Ray Weaver, who runs a film production company called Black Saddle Productions, also grew up riding horses with her family in Texas, but today she’s just happy to be exactly where she is. “I’m super excited that we’re back after two years of being locked up by COVID, sheltered in place,” she tells me. “But you know what? It was a chance to reflect. Now the energy is so high here, and I’m loving it.”
Eight-year-old Yaseen Hackett assures me that he, too, is a cowboy. “I’ve been growing up around a lot of cowboys these past few years,” he says. “I love how they just ride on the horse, the way it moves beneath them, all the bull riding and everything. It’s just amazing.”
Yaseen’s father, Joseph, joined the Oakland Black Cowboys Association (OBCA) in 2019. He grew up riding, but he never knew about the all-Black rodeo. The first time he came out, though, it changed his life. “I felt some type of way because I didn’t know about this growing up,” he says. “But when I joined the OBCA, I learned about the history. I had literature that taught me about the Black cowboy and how we were the original cowboys, how it’s even in the name: ‘Go get that cow, boy.’
“When you hear that, and you find out the truth, you feel obligated to keep it going.”