Although the most famous cowboys of the old west were white men like Roy Rogers and Billy the Kid, one in four of America’s cowboys were African-American.
Many of the slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries were familiar with cattle herding from their homelands of West Africa. This brings historians the question of the name “Cowboy” and whether or not it was made from slave cow herders.
The life of the black cowboy was tougher than most. It was the black cowboy who broke the horses and herded the cattle across the rivers. Though they took on the toughest jobs, it was better to be a black cowboy on the ranch than a slave on the plantation picking cotton.
The life and legacy of black cowboys is still alive through the Federation of Black Cowboys. The organization takes inner city kids off the street and teaches them life on horseback. The fundamental tools they learn at Cedar Lane give them hope for bright futures – something many of them may not have had in their crime-ridden and drug-infested surroundings. Each child learns responsibility before being given the privilege to ride. They must learn to completely care for their stables. The Federation of Black Cowboys ranch is located near Queens, New York, with only a white fence separating them from the busy city streets.
Little to no attention was given to the black cowboys who made their mark in western history by Hollywood. Riders like William “Bill” Pickett, Stagecoach Mary, Nat Love and Bass Reeves were among the most famous.
Documentary filmmakers John Ferguson and Gregg MacDonald have created “The Forgotten Cowboys,” in which they follow the contemporary black cowboys of today, like Jason Griffin, who is a four-time world champion bareback bucking horse rider, while also reflecting on the black riders in the past.