Black Cowboys Bring Wild West to NYC
NEW YORK (AP) _ This cowboy rides into the sunset East Coast-style: black felt cowboy hat, pointy-toed boots and a white bandanna.
And New Yorkers love it.
Jessie Wise, a founding member of the Federation of Black Cowboys, takes particular pride in introducing inner-city children to horses and history _ especially the black influence in the Old West.
``The community loves us,″ said Wise, 62, who sports a Western-style handlebar mustache and runs a construction company. ``There’s nothing like the cowboys riding into town.″
Federation members roam through the city, teaching children how to ride, care for and handle horses, appearing at major events _ including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade _ as well as fairs, picnics and schools.
There is no official dress code, but members look the part in tight jeans, leather belts, boots and wide-brimmed hats.
``When they see us in the neighborhood, when they see us with the horses, they see something different than the stuff they see in the streets,″ said Leonard Holmes, 60, a Department of Corrections officer.
The federation was formed in 1994 to promote the history of black cowboys, whose contribution to western lore has been obscured by more heralded frontier figures, from gunslinging lawman Wyatt Earp to prairie pundit Will Rogers.
But according to the federation’s Web site, the West also was built by the likes of Nat Love, known as Deadwood Dick, who was born in a Tennessee slave cabin and worked as a cowboy and in the rodeo; and Mary Fields, known as Stagecoach Mary, who in 1885 ran a stagecoach line.
``Usually on TV, it’s about whites,″ said Ellis Bryan, 16, of Brooklyn. ``I didn’t know black cowboys existed until I met them.″
That came after driving past the Cedar Lane stables in Queens with his parents. ``I’d look out the window and see these horses and kids running around and having fun,″ he said.
Since his first visit two years ago, Ellis has become a regular, learning to ride and groom horses.
At Cedar Lane _ located on 25 acres of city-owned property in the Howard Beach section of the borough _ the group hosts parties, field trips and an annual ``Rodeo Showdeo″ festival, featuring skits, demonstrations and bronco-riding.
Many of the group’s 40 members are native Southerners who grew up around horses. Others are New Yorkers raised on Western films and cowboy legends, and teenagers who first learned about horses from the Black Cowboys themselves.
New Yorker Warren Small, who acts as federation spokesman, spent summers in North Carolina among tobacco crops, horses and mules. One of his early memories is of a mounted city police officer who gave him a ride through Harlem.
``You might say from that day forward, it left such an impression upon me that I just knew I was going to have a life that in some way was going to interact with a horse as well as law enforcement,″ said Small, 57, a court officer.
Inspired, Small began studying the history of America’s black cowboys. Today he’s an expert, dispensing information on blacks who headed west during the cattle industry boom of the late 1800s.
``We let the kids know that we didn’t just start involving ourselves with this because we knew about Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers or so forth,″ Small said. ``We were those cowboys.″
Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming history professor, says black cowboys became common after the Civil War, and some figured prominently in the Old West as rodeo cowboys or as members of all-black cavalry units known as ``Buffalo Soldiers.″
Back east, though, their legacy remains largely unknown.
``People had their image of what a cowboy was,″ Roberts said. ``A lot of it was perpetuated by the media presentations of the cowboys in fiction and old Westerns. And because of the tenure of the times, African Americans were left out. As a result, reality was distorted.″
Thus became the mission of the urban cowboys, clopping through the streets, recreating an era of gun-toting heroes, and educating children on the role of black Americans in the expansion of the West.
``I always wanted to be a cowboy,″ said Don Rouse, 48, a retired corrections officer. ``People said, ‘You’re crazy. There are no cowboys in New York.’ We’ve made them out to be liars.″
On the Net: http://www.federationofblackcowboys.com/