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The history of Black cowboys and cowgirls are kept alive in riding clubs and rodeos

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

African American artists have incorporated Wild West elements into their clothes and music. Thank Solange, Beyonce and Lil Nas X. Nick de la Canal of WFAE in Charlotte reports the history of Black cowboys and cowgirls is also being kept alive in riding clubs and rodeos around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: All right. Y'all ready?

NICK DE LA CANAL, BYLINE: Inside a dusty rodeo ring in the town of Love Valley, N.C., a half-dozen Black men and women on horses gallop around upright poles, as a crowd in hats and denim presses against the barriers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bring them home, Baby Joe (ph). Yes, sir.

(CHEERING)

DE LA CANAL: Two women hold clipboards and monitor a table stacked with trophies. They're members of a local cowgirl club from Charlotte. And they organized this rodeo.

ANGIE SIMMONS: I'm Angie Simmons. And I'm the president of Sisters With Horses.

NAZIRAH MUHAMMAD: I am Nazirah Muhammad. And I'm the vice president.

DE LA CANAL: Simmons is a nurse. Muhammad is a security guard and medical transport. And they're also modern-day cowgirls. They ride and take care of horses and organize social events for the dozen or so other Black cowboy clubs around the Carolinas.

MUHAMMAD: Basically, we just want to get together, ride, have a good time. This is our relaxation for the weekend.

DE LA CANAL: Sometimes they ride on remote trails in the mountains or the coast. Occasionally, they saddle up for a trot through uptown Charlotte, where Simmons says her posse always gets a reaction.

SIMMONS: People were just amazed that a woman was on a horse, and not just that, just a woman of color.

DE LA CANAL: But maybe people shouldn't be so surprised, says Jim Austin. He's the co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

JIM AUSTIN: Most people believe that the West was all white cowboys.

DE LA CANAL: In fact, Austin says, many historians believe 1 in 3 cowboys were people of color.

AUSTIN: Black, Hispanic, Native American.

DE LA CANAL: Many were recently freed enslaved people migrating from the South. Austin says some were legends in their day, people like Stagecoach Mary Fields.

AUSTIN: She rode the mountains of Montana, carrying the mail (laughter) for 10 years. And she started at 60 years old. And she could knock a guy out with one punch.

DE LA CANAL: There was also rodeo performer Bill Pickett, who invented the technique of bulldogging, which involves wrestling a steer to the ground by its horns. And Austin says the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi was a man named Bass Reeves.

AUSTIN: He was a sharpshooter. He wore a Black hat. He had lived on Indian reservations, so his side partner was a Native American.

DE LA CANAL: He said to have arrested more than 3,000 people without ever getting shot. Most of today's Black cowboys aren't slinging guns or driving cattle, says Zaron Burnett, host of the iHeartRadio podcast "Black Cowboys." But they are keeping cowboy traditions alive in hundreds of riding clubs in African American rodeos across the U.S. And Burnett says they remain powerful figures.

ZARON BURNETT: So when you saw, like, the George Floyd protests, in Oakland, there were a lot of Black cowboys who came out on horseback to basically say, like, look; we've been here. We continue to be here. And this is who we are.

DE LA CANAL: Back at the Love Valley Rodeo, Jay Black leans back in a saddle.

JAY BLACK: My family had horses. My granddad had farm animals.

DE LA CANAL: That's why, the first chance he got, he bought his 6-year-old son, Jason, a pony. And so far, Jason says, he's into it.

BLACK: They're very calming. I like them.

DE LA CANAL: Gwen Sutton says she isn't from a horse-riding family and had no idea there were Black cowboy clubs until her teenage son's friends took him to a stable.

GWEN SUTTON: He went to a barn and came back and said, Mom, can I get a horse?

DE LA CANAL: She found one pretty cheap.

SUTTON: And ever since then, he's been riding horses.

DE LA CANAL: She says she's glad her son got roped in with the cowboys. Now he has a community connecting him to African Americans of the Wild West. And he's on his way to keeping the traditions alive for yet another generation.

For NPR News, I'm Nick de la Canal in Love Valley, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON MARTIN PERKINS' "OLD TOWN ROAD - GUITAR INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.