At the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, All Cowboys and Cowgirls Are at the Center of the Universe

A century ago, thousands of spectators would gather at the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show to marvel at the moves of the “Dusky Deamon”. Today, we recognize this fearsome performer as the famous cowboy Bill Pickett, who pioneered steer wrestling – an event that many rodeos spotlight today. But many cowboys that compete in the event at popular rodeos look nothing like the Black cowboy who created the technique, and the media promotes John Wayne-esque cowboys on screen.

So, where have all the Black cowboys gone?

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, founded by Lu Vason in 1984, refutes the idea that Black cowboys have disappeared, or that they’ve been erased from history. They’re the only African-American touring rodeo in the world, but they note that nearly one in four cowboys were Black in the mid-1800s. The contributions those cowboys made centuries ago can be felt on ranches, farms, and rodeos from coast to coast today.

“Today you will find Black cowboys and cowgirls still active,” all across the United States says Valeria Howard-Cunningham, CEO and President of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Methods invented by Black cowboys, like Bill Pickett’s famous bulldogging technique, are being used by current cowboys and cowgirls in states like Texas, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

But it’s undeniable that the number of Black cowboys isn’t what it used to be. Equestrian sports are expensive, and cost is one of the major challenges standing in the way of Black cowboys and equestrians today. Not only do they need to have the resources to keep their horses groomed and comfortable, but they also have to account for expenses to transport their horses to compete in far-away rodeos. 

“The expense to rodeo is and remains a huge challenge,” the CEO said. The organization has made it its mission to be an accessible point of entry to the rodeo world for as many Black cowboys and spectators as possible.

bill pickett rodeo
Image: Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.

Recently, the BPIR struck up a partnership with Crown Royal and created the Hats Off Grant, which awarded two BPIR cowboys and two cowgirls $25,000 each in 2024 to advance their rodeo careers. What’s more, the organization has made sure to reach as many communities as physically possible at a large scale, sharing the full experience across the country.

“Hosting events like the Legacy Tour and the Texas Connection Series in 9 different city locations across the US provides opportunities for the contestants to win larger pots of winnings and to possibly be crowned as a BPIR Champion,” she shared.

Howard-Cunningham notes that the organization aims to put Black cowboys in the spotlight, saying “We feel it is as important to showcase the current rodeo athletes competing in professional rodeo events,” including barrel racing and bull riding.

But the organization makes sure to emphasize the rich history of Black cowboys, paying tribute to the stars who roamed the plains of the famed Wild West long ago. Audiences are treated to reenactments of popular stories from the “Black West”, including figures like Bill Pickett (of course), lawman Bass Reeves, Buffalo soldiers, and more.

That on-stage representation goes a long way in inspiring Black kids to become the next generation of cowboys and cowgirls, as well as the organization’s Rodeo for Kidz Sake event. It not only teaches children the history of Black cowboys but also gives them a taste of life outside of a city— complete with the animals that give cowboys their livelihood.

Image: Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.

“We understand that the BPIR experience may be the only time they see another side of the world,” said Howard-Cunningham. “We hope that this exposure provides them with the opportunity that opens their mind to other options in life and witness Black West History.”

The BPIR has seen a lot of support not only from the cowboys and cowgirls who compete in their events but also from the families and neighbors who gather to cheer them on from the stands. 

With over 100,000 people attending the rodeo each year, it’s hard not to think of the thousands that gathered to see the organization’s namesake in his prime. After 40 years, the rodeo has managed to keep Pickett’s name alive.

All the fun is a part of the BPIR’s ultimate vision. Even when the rodeo has packed up to move to the next city, the organization tirelessly works to spread awareness of Black cowboys.

“We keep our community informed of various issues, whether it is health, political, agriculture or rodeo,” said Howard-Cunningham, noting that they don’t just focus on entertaining community members, but also educating them.

“We feel it is our responsibility to teach what has been left out of the history books.”

The BPIR is a living monument to the Black cowboy culture that began back before cities like Houston and Dallas dominated southern states, a crucial part of Black history that continues to evolve each time a Black cowboy mounts a horse. Black culture, just like Black folk, is resilient enough to stand the test of time.

“We believe that the Black cowboy culture can never be erased, even though many have tried.”

Updated: May 13, 2024 — 12:02 pm