Black cowboys reclaim their history in the West

At an annual rodeo in Phoenix, the contributions of African Americans are finally recognized.

As the sun sets over Phoenix’s South Mountain Park on a crisp desert evening, dust swirls over the park’s outdoor riding arena. Laughter carries from the stands and into the mountains as four men and their horses take turns flying around blue barrels and over the pockmarked dirt. They call themselves “As the Crows Fly,” after their unique riding style — blazing over obstacles instead of around them. The Crows work as a team in a kind of horseback relay, training for the annual Arizona Black Rodeo.

Wearing a beige cowboy hat, jean vest, bandanna and worn leather boots, Ricky Magee, who works as an IT technician by day, waits in the middle of the ring atop Cajun, his umber-colored horse, until it is their turn. Just as his partner approaches the last barrel, the two burst out to receive the baton. But as Magee grabs the baton and Cajun catches her stride, the horse steps into one of the many craters in the well-worn dirt. Cajun tumbles to the ground and Magee lands inches away.

In years when a pandemic has not shut down everything, the rodeo is a way to acknowledge African Americans’ long-neglected contributions to Western history. The rodeo celebrates the accomplishments of men like Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy in the late 19th century who started off as a ranch hand in Texas and became a rodeo star famous for his steer-wrestling technique. And Bass Reeves, a deputy U.S. marshal who was famous for capturing thousands of criminals in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and who, some historians suspect, was the inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger.

Though historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of the cowboys in the late 1800s were Black, many of them have been erased from the history of the “Wild West.” But at a ranch in South Phoenix owned by David Knight, a retired Black trucker from Indiana, the riding group is reclaiming that history. Though these men are aware of their historical erasure, they are not on some grand crusade to right the wrongs of the past. As far as they’re concerned, they’re simply sharing the traditions that were passed down to them.

See the rest of the story — and more about each of the “As The Crow Flies” cowboys — here:

Daja E. Henry is a writer and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. She is a graduate of Howard University and currently covers health disparities in underserved communities across the Southwest. She is bilingual and has told stories from Panama, Guyana, Cuba and the American South.

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.