Forest McMullin photographs attendees at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in his series, “Black Cowboys (and girls).”

The Movies May Have Forgotten About Them, but Black Cowboys Are Thriving

The Movies May Have Forgotten About Them, but Black Cowboys Are Thriving

Behold
The Photo Blog
Sept. 18 2014 12:37 PM

The Movies May Have Forgotten About Them, but Black Cowboys Are Thriving

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Thad, Tyler, and Thaddeus are three generations of cowboys. Thad, a retired fireman, has been riding in the rodeo since 1994 in the steer wrestling competition. Thaddeus is a cook at Waffle House and plans to start competing in the rodeo when Tyler is a little older.

Forest McMullin

American movies and media may have largely forgotten the role of black Americans in cowboy culture, but the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo certainly hasn’t. The all-black rodeo was created in 1984 by entertainment producer Lu Vason in order to “uncover the cultural past of the black cowboy.” It’s been traveling the country ever since. 

The event is named after Bill Pickett, the first black athlete to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and the inventor of “bulldogging,” a breathtaking rodeo move that involves a rider “riding alongside a steer, jumping onto its shoulders and horns, then digging his feet into the ground to bring the animal down.”

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Rennae Isles is a rider from Canton, Ohio. She recently arrived in Atlanta looking for work as a driver in the film industry.

Forest McMullin

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Darrell Thomas’ father founded the Anahuac Saltgrass Cowboy’s Association in Texas in the 1960s as an all-black rodeo group. Thomas rode in rodeos for 16 years. He now lives in Atlanta where he works in construction.

Forest McMullin

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Melissa Ellison is a nurse and Melissa Brown works in accounting for a forest products company. They’re trail riders.

Forest McMullin

Forest McMullin, who teaches photography at Savannah College of Art and Design, has a history of photographing distinct social groups, including “Mormons at sacred sites in upstate New York, small-time WWE style wrestlers, and couples involved in the sadomasochistic lifestyle.” 

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When a student told him about all-black rodeos, he was intrigued. “That's kind of how a lot of my stories start. Somebody says something I've never heard of and I get interested in it,” McMullin said.

In August, McMullin visited the Georgia International Horse Park, where the Bill Pickett Rodeo was being held. He’d never been to a rodeo before (the closest he’d gotten was a bullfight in Arles, France), and was instantly wowed by the incredible athleticism he saw there. 

But McMullin did not take photos of any of the action in the arena. Instead, he chose to focus on the individual personalities at the event by taking portraits of riders, members of the Rodeo organization, and spectators who’d come from as far as Indiana and Oklahoma to attend. “Everybody there is really proud of their horse culture and cowboy culture. They’re just a friendly group of people who are happy to talk about where they’re from and what they’re doing and why they're doing it. It’s great looking,” he said.

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Derry L. Pierce, a police detective, traveled from Sauk Village, Illinois, to attend his third rodeo, the Bill Pickett Rodeo. He planned to compete in calf roping.

Forest McMullin

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Sharon Darden is an avid trail rider.

Forest McMullin

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Reginald Ezell is the pastor at the church that sponsors the JC Riders. They’re a group of Christians who ride together and use riding and horse care as a method of community outreach in suburban Atlanta.

Forest McMullin

As McMullin learned more about the history of the rodeo, his intention morphed from pure curiosity to a firm belief in the rodeo’s mission of bringing attention to the history of the black West. “The history of African-American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of other African-American groups—it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media,” McMullin wrote in a statement. “The fact is that African-Americans made up roughly 25 percent of the cowboys responsible for the movement west.”

McMullin was only able to photograph for two days while the rodeo was in town, but he said he’d like to continue his series, “Black Cowboys (and Girls),” and learn more about this distinctly American tradition. “I'm an old white guy, but I like learning new things and I was really excited to learn about this—and to celebrate it visually,” he said.

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Aaron Pickett was planning to ride in the grand entry at the opening of the rodeo.

Forest McMullin

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Thad Heard (left) is a retired fireman and has been riding in the rodeo since 1994 in the steer wrestling competition. Talmage Burton (right) is a retired rodeo bull rider. He keeps horses in suburban Atlanta.

Forest McMullin

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Harrel Williams Jr. is 2 years old. His parents both compete in the rodeo.

Forest McMullin

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.