By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Despite the country-western style warning sung by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” many Black mothers in American history had cowboys for sons. There was plenty more than we’ve realized from watching TV and the movies. For example, some might remember the Lone Ranger television series (“Who was that masked man?”was the question asked about the do-gooding sheriff and his trusty companion as they left the scene).
But some historians believe, notably freelance writer, William DeLong, that the real Lone Ranger was Black. His name was Bass Reeves, who served as a Federal Marshal for 27 years. His assistant in taming the west was Native American (like the Ranger’s Tonto) and the two of them arrested 3,000 lawbreakers in their crime fighting careers. According to DeLong, “It’s believed that Reeves’ story is the basis for The Lone Ranger stories since Reeves kept his true identity a secret and he had a Native American sidekick.” Reeves wore disguises to sneak up on and arrest evil-doers; the Lone Ranger wore a mask.
Black men, many of them former slaves, helped win the west. Reeves, serving as a US Marshall, died in the line of duty in Oklahoma before it became a state. But other Black cowboys, such as Bill Pickett, also made their mark, where the buffaloes roamed, as a ranch hand born in Texas in 1870. He is credited with creating the art of subduing cattle by biting their lip (like Mike Tyson biting an ear in a boxing match). Pickett would ride up next to a cow or bull, and then lasso the animal and pull it to the ground. Pickett then jumped off his horse and next to the cow before biting the lip and tying the cow’s legs. Pickett invented a creative distraction. Poor cows.
In his article, “Five African American Cowboys Who Shaped the American West,” Courtney Fox writes, “One of the few depictions of Black cowboys in Hollywood was in the miniseries, Lonesome Dove. Danny Glover’s character, Deets, was based on a real cowboy named Bose Ikard. Ikard joined Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving on their historic cattle drive back in the late 1800s.”
Fox in the above article writes about Pickett, Ikard and Reeves, all mentioned above. And he brings to our attention John Ware, a cowboy, ranch owner and rodeo performer who was rumored to have never been thrown from his horse. Also, Nat Love, gifted with horses, a sharp-shooter and a prominent man of the West whose nickname, Deadwood Dick, was derived from a town where he won an important rodeo competition is another great, Black cowboy.
One of my all-time favorite movie westerns is “The Magnificent Seven” released in 1960 and starring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen. The plot: despite the nobility of their cause—seven gunslingers are hired to protect an unarmed, fearful group of small-town Mexicans from a group of thieving bandits—but there are no Black cowboys depicted. Fortunately, the film was remade in 2016 with Denzel Washington as the lead. That’s progress.
More recently, a film released on Netflix in 2021 was entitled “The Harder They Fall.” It features a Black cast headed by Idris Elba and Regina King. The historical figure, Nat Love, appears as a character in the story. There are a lot of blood and guts depicted but it is an entertaining movie nonetheless. I’d recommend it.
Finally, the last word on Blacks and cowboys goes to comedian, Flip Wilson from his 1967 hilarious album, “Cowboys and Colored People.” Wilson, born in New Jersey, lived from 1933 to 1998 and in addition to his albums he hosted a popular television show. He was the first African American to host a successful TV variety show. His comic routine about Black Cowboys and “Indians,” though perhaps a bit politically incorrect in small ways these days, is funny. It’ll take your mind off of Black cowboys being reduced to hidden figures in American culture and “actor” and star cowboy, John Wayne’s reported negative statement about Blacks that defamed us all.
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