You might not guess it from old Westerns, but many of the bull riders and cattle ropers of the world are people of color. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans played a key role in the settlement of the American West and the development of rodeo. Special rodeos geared toward those groups highlight that history — and aim to bring new fans of color into the sport.
One such event was the first trip to the rodeo for Ramona Famble and her friends Toi Denson and Reeshemah Johnson. They had to figure out the rules as they watched, but they were cheering and screaming along with the rest of the crowd.
Even though she’s no expert, Famble enjoyed the show.
“Not knowing what to expect, and then you saw the first guy go out, and he like tackles this bull, and he like jumps on him and he rolls around in the dirt?” she said, “You know, I’m like, 'Wow!'"
These women didn’t know about black rodeos until one came to Savannah, Georgia, where they live. Atlanta Black Rodeo Association founder Keith Roberts said that’s fairly common.
“A lot of the African-American community doesn’t know about black cowboys, and so that was one way to educate them and entertain them at the same time,” he said. “And if you go to regular rodeo? You don’t see a lot of blacks at regular rodeo.”
Tracey Owens Patton with the University of Wyoming said professional rodeo itself was never officially segregated. But separate rodeos cropped up as Jim Crow laws kept riders of color out of venues. Now, “rodeo has been slow, I would argue, in just feeling like a welcoming place to some of the rodeo participants,” Patton said.
Roberts said he never faced overt exclusion as a rider. But he said it’s still tough to draw new fans, especially fans of color, to rodeo.
The black rodeo in Savannah certainly converted a few new fans - like Reeshemah Johnson.
“This is my first time,” Johnson said after the show. “Such an awesome event. Definitely, definitely worth it.”
She was one of 2,397 people in the arena.