Bill Pickett, born in 1870 in Travis County, Texas, is perhaps the most famous Black cowboy and was one of the first Black cowhands in rodeo. He was the inventor of “bulldogging.” This technique of rodeo steer wrestling — grabbing a steer by the horns and twisting its neck — became popular, and a central part of rodeos around the country. Pickett’s legacy lives on in the rodeo that carries his name.
On September 14, The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) came to Prince George’s County, Maryland. Black cowboys and cowgirls, dressed in their finest, competed for prizes and gathered to maintain, honor, and reclaim Black western culture. Although the rodeo didn’t take place in Baltimore City, it is relevant to this Black Baltimore paper because it was an event by and for Black folks, and Baltimore is a city with a legacy of Black western culture — specifically, Black equestrians.
Black folks are entrenched in rodeo culture both historically and presently. Think of Texan archivist Bri Malandro’s coining of the phrase “the black yee-haw agenda“; Beyonce’s Ivy Park Rodeo campaign, which featured Black cowboys and cowgirls and pays homage to her upbringing in Houston; even the family of stunt horse trainers in Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” I was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, the place with the motto “Where the West Begins.” In elementary school, we had a day off for Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo Day, encouraging us to visit the rodeo. In high school, I had classmates who competed in cattle raising and horse riding.
Despite my upbringing in a very western and southern place, seeing Black cowboys and Black cowgirls was less than familiar to me. The BPIR addresses what happens historically through art and culture — the contributions of Black artists are ignored and erased by the white majority. I didn’t learn about Bill Pickett until I was in college, but through my upbringing I was flooded with images of John Wayne and other white cowboys of popular culture and lore. Black cowboys and cowgirls have always existed, and still exist and thrive today. When I moved to Baltimore in 2016, I found familiarity in this city situated in the Upper South. Baltimore’s Southern roots are present in the arabbers tradition. The clomp and cadence of the horses’ hooves on the road, the jingling of the bell attached to their cart as the driver calls out the offerings of the day. Witnessing the arabbers here always reminds me of visiting the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo back home.
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Founded by Lu Vason in 1984, by and for Black western folks, the BPIR’s mission was to make a place to maintain the history and contemporary tradition of Black cowboys and cowgirls. The BPIR is the only touring Black rodeo in the world and is currently led by a Black woman, Lu Vason’s widow, Valeria Howard Cunningham, who is the rodeo president and owner.
Visibility and representation in popular culture should not be a luxury. Black cowboys like Bill Pickett are legendary, and Black cowboys are also everyday people who live, and work, and hustle, and laugh, and make a living. In this photo essay shot by Cameron Snell, you will see Black cowboys and cowgirls of all ages who look like you and like me.