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Race in Rodeo: Cowboys Reflect on how Far the Cowboy Sport has Come

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Oct 20, 2016

[PHOTO] Dightman did what they said could not be done when he rode at seven NFRs. DeVere Helfrich Photo

[PHOTO] Dightman did what they said could not be done when he rode at seven NFRs.
DeVere Helfrich Photo

I was raised not to judge a book by its cover. My parents and grandparents were functionally colorblind, so we always had friends of all shades and walks of life. Good people are good people, and the bad ones don’t come color-coded. It’s an optimistic outlook that looks for the best in everyone. And there’s no such thing as too many friends.

Like everyone else who’s watched the news lately-and the senseless slaughter of people of every color, which so often these days is caught on tape-I’m concerned and confused about how some people in the greatest nation in the world seem to have slipped back into such a 1960s state on the race-relations front. On the bright side, I’m happy to report serious evolutionary progress within our cowboy community. We are “may the best man win” people, as it should be.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I always ran up to visit Myrtis Dightman when he came to the California Rodeo in Salinas, San Francisco’s Cow Palace and other rodeos we went to with our timed-event dad. Myrtis wasn’t a black bull rider to us-he was a friendly, nice man who always stopped to say hello and visit, and never treated us like second-class citizens just because we were kids. He even bought us popcorn one time at Salinas.

It wasn’t until my adult years that I realized what happy-go-lucky Myrtis-the first African American ever to compete at the National Finals Rodeo when he rode there the first time in 1964-had smiled through during his career years before, during and after his seven trips to the NFR. I’ve heard horror stories about judges who systematically turned their backs to the arena before Myrtis even nodded his head and put a zero in their book before his chin hit his chest. The standard reason when asked why: “He slapped him.” Hard to be sure when you don’t see the ride.

Then there were the times they wouldn’t let him ride in the rodeo. “I didn’t have any trouble with any of the cowboys, and I never had a fight with anyone in the rodeo business,” said Myrtis, who’s 81 now and still living in his native Crockett, Texas. “Maybe the stock man didn’t like black people, I don’t know. But that first time I was the only one who rode after the rodeo. I didn’t mind, because I won the rodeo. After that, they started holding three white guys with me until after the rodeo, so I didn’t have to ride by myself.”

It’s just the way it was. And yet, Myrtis never complained. Still doesn’t. “I came up with some good guys-guys like Freckles Brown, Donnie Gay, Jim Shoulders, Paul Mayo, Larry Mahan and Bobby Berger,” he said.

Myrtis mentored some good ones, too, including Charles Sampson, whom Myrtis will join in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame on August 6. In 1982, Charlie became the first black world champion cowboy in rodeo history.

“When I ran across Charlie he was working at a horse stable down in Southern California,” Myrtis remembers. “I told him, ‘If you’ll finish high school, you can come to Texas and I’ll help you. Just show me your diploma.’”

Myrtis was told time and time again that he’d never even make the Finals. “I always said, ‘I’ll never know if I don’t try. Don’t tell me I can’t do it.’ That’s what kept me going.”

Once he cracked the NFR cut, Myrtis asked his ProRodeo Hall of Famer friend Freckles what he’d have to do to win the world. “He told me all I had to do was just keep doing what I was doing and turn white,” remembers Myrtis, who despite the disadvantages twice finished among the top five in the world.

[PHOTO] Myrtis Dightman takes on Jim Shoulders’ Tornado at the 1967 NFR in Oklahoma City.

[PHOTO] Myrtis Dightman takes on Jim Shoulders’ Tornado at the 1967 NFR in Oklahoma City.

Myrtis just laughed. His sense of humor and unstoppable spirit were his saving grace.

“I never one time questioned a judge,” he said. “I just rode my best and went to the next rodeo. I didn’t want to be hateful, so I never held anything against anybody. I’d pray to the Good Lord and go get on another one.”

Before he started riding bulls in 1961 (he hung up his chaps in 1989), Myrtis was a bullfighter. There were times, when needed for other purposes, that he actually rode first instead of last. “When I started riding bulls, they let me ride first at some places so I could jump in as a bullfighter and keep the bulls off of the other cowboys,” he said.

I asked Myrtis if he prefers to be called African American or black, as preference and political correctness have certainly evolved in my lifetime. “I like to be called American, because that’s what I am,” he said. “And I’m proud of that.

“It’s gotten better for black cowboys in my lifetime, and I’m happy about that. I proved my goal: A black cowboy can do the same thing a white cowboy can do, and everybody’s the same. There are good white people and good black people. There are white people who will cheat you and black people who will cheat you. The problem is when people of any color don’t like you when they don’t even know you.”

Amen. And this isn’t just a black-and-white issue. Jerold Camarillo, the 1969 world champion team roper, is about to join his brother, Leo, in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, and they’ve been treated differently by some all their lives for being brown. The Camarillos are half Indian and half Hispanic.

As it was with Myrtis, I didn’t notice Jerold and Leo’s skin color as a kid. They were dear friends of my dad’s, and I can remember riding around at rodeos like Salinas and Oakdale visiting with Leo back before my feet even reached the stirrups in my dad’s saddle. Like Myrtis, the Camarillos always treated my brothers and me like we mattered, even as little kids.

Both of Jerold and Leo’s parents were born in Southern California. Their mom, Pilar, was from the Luiseño Tribe, which is the San Luis Rey Band of the Mission Indians. Patriarch Ralph was the first generation of his family born in America. Jerold and Leo’s grandfather, Luis Camarillo, was born in Mexico.

[PHOTO] Jerold Camarillo and his dog OJ taking a siesta.

[PHOTO] Jerold Camarillo and his dog OJ taking a siesta.

An interesting part of the Camarillos’ past is that Jerold, Leo and little sister Christie were raised in California’s ultra-affluent Santa Ynez Valley, where Ralph ran ranches and ran them right. But the Camarillo kids looked different from all their blonde-haired, blue-eyed counterparts who lived in quaint little towns such as Solvang.

“We were not recognized as equals with the white kids,” said Jerold, who won the 1975 NFR average heeling for their cousin, Reg, a four-time NFR average champ. “So when we’d bring kids home after school and our mom would talk to me in Spanish about what the kids wanted to eat or do, it was embarrassing to me. We didn’t want to be Mexicans, because at that time we were considered a lower class of people. In hindsight, I wish we’d stuck to Spanish. We had an opportunity growing up to be bilingual, which would come in handy today.

“We grew up surrounded by rich, white people. Back then, being called a Mexican was as degrading as being called a (n word, not to be dignified by being spelled out) if you’re black. It was a bad deal. If a guy called me a Mexican, I was going to hit him. Now I’m proud to be an Indian and I’m proud to be a Mexican. You learn over a lifetime not to care about people with no respect. They don’t matter anyway.

“One year, I was asking some of the cowboys who won the big money up in Calgary. It was 1985, and that Sunday was the Canadian holiday Bastille Day. A couple black cowboys, Sylvester Mayfield and Charlie Sampson, won the $50,000 in the calf roping and bull riding, and instead of being happy for the US to win so much some guys were calling it Black Sunday.”

Naturally in my line of work, I’ve always spent more time with the winners than the losers. I get so aggravated when people throw nasty, petty jabs at the champs, who always seem to have a bull’s-eye on their backs. Ty Murray used to tell me, “Toots, jealousy is a very ugly emotion.” Well, the Camarillos experienced it just like everybody else who wins more than most.

“They’d say, ‘Those Mexican kids kicked our ass’ instead of calling us by name,” Jerold remembers. “We hated that. But it’s just like anything else-there are bad apples in every barrel and there are good ones. What’s really bad is when people won’t give you the time of day just because you don’t look just like them.

[PHOTO] Leo “The Lion” Camarillo hammers a hereford on his legendary steed Stick at the 1975 National Finals Rodeo

[PHOTO] Leo “The Lion” Camarillo hammers a hereford on his legendary steed Stick at the 1975 National Finals Rodeo

“Leo raised his fist the first year he won the NFR (1968), because he was happy to win the National Finals. He meant it as, ‘Yes. We did it.’ The sports writers tried to turn it around that Leo was pumping the power sign for Mexican people, like it was a Black Power thing for Mexicans.”

Jerold and Leo’s career paths crossed plenty with Myrtis’s, and though they were from the other end of the arena they paid attention when they heard his name called.

“Myrtis rode as good as any of them,” said Jerold, 69. “The judges would not mark him as high as the white guys, because he was black. I’ve seen him ride a hell of a bull and be 75 points. There were times he should have won the rodeo and didn’t even place. They’d say they were afraid the blacks would take over. Myrtis would just shake his head and go to the next one. If he was in sports today he would dominate. They didn’t let him win the world. But he blazed the trail. And by the time Charlie Sampson came around they marked him for what he did, not the color he was.

“I’m a guy who wants the best guy to win. If people beat me fair and square they deserve it. You can’t knock someone out for the color of his skin. It’s better for the timed eventers, because they can’t change the clock. When you run against the clock it’s harder to get at you. But when an event is judged, the judge holds the pencil.”

Jerold’s proud to share center stage in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame Class of 2016 with Myrtis.

“I’m happy to see Myrtis getting his due, and it’s long overdue,” Jerold said. “He was the best in his time, and he should have been a world champion. They cheated him out of world championships. They didn’t score him because he was black, bottom line. But Myrtis made a difference. And it’s different today because of him.”

Jerold’s big brother, Leo, is 70 now.

“When I had a successful run I was very emotional,” said Leo, who won world team roping titles in 1972-73, ’75 and ’83, and was the co-all-around champ of the world with Tom Ferguson in 1975. “Back then, any gesture or expression made was assumed to be racially motivated. I was just basically saying ‘Yes!’ with my body language. It would be like somebody throwing his hat today. Nobody thinks anything of it now, but back then was a different story. When I did it at the 1968 NFR, people said, ‘That Mexican’s just trying to be like the (plural n word) down at the Olympics in Mexico City.”

So, Lion, do you prefer being called Mexican or Hispanic?

“I’m proud of my heritage and my culture-of being both Indian and Mexican,” said Leo, who won a record six NFR average titles. “I don’t appreciate being called Indian or Mexican when people use it in a derogatory manner. Those words are not meant to be insults-just facts of where your people came from. When someone says ‘Mexican’ to me, I can tell by their tone whether they’re being respectful or not. I’ve had a lifetime of practice.”

Back to Ty’s observation on jealousy, Leo noticed over the years that jealous people were more likely to treat him with racial bias-even when they didn’t know him.

“Jealous people made more of it than most,” Leo said. “I’m a controversial guy anyway. I was very determined in my career, and there was an intimidation factor. Jealous people tend to play the race card more, because they’re looking for a reason not to like you. The good people don’t judge you by the color of your skin. That’s friendship.

“There were definite racist decisions made at times during my career, but what was I going to do about it? I wasn’t going to hold a sign up and picket at the White House. I had to overlook it and go on. Muhammad Ali took that race card and showed them it wasn’t only a white man’s world. He was an athlete, a fierce competitor and a good human being who stood up for what was right. That’s part of what made him The Greatest. It’s all about work ethic, and being proud of the things you earn through hard work. But regardless of accomplishment or how good a person you are, all people don’t look at all other people as brothers and sisters. That’s just reality.”

But like Myrtis and Jerold, Leo believes it is a lot better today than it used to be.

“Back in the day if you were black or brown, like I am, you sat on the back of the bus, no question,” Leo said. “That’s just the way it was. It’s not perfect now, but the world’s come a long ways when it comes to race, and rodeo has, too. More people accept more people now than they did before. I don’t know if it’ll ever come to total equality. This is an issue that will likely go on to the end of time. But it’s better than it was. And that’s a start.”

I next called on one of my oldest, dearest friends in the rodeo business for perspective on this conversation. Harry Vold-the Duke of the Chutes-is 92 now, and is a stock contractor extraordinaire in addition to being a gentleman of absolute honor and integrity. I asked the Duke if he got to watch Myrtis ride much back in the day.

“Oh yes, many times,” Harry said. “Myrtis was very tough. He was one of the best bull riders of that era, no doubt about it. The only difference was he was black. He never had to ride after the rodeo at any of my rodeos, but there was a question many times about whether or not he was marked as well as he should have been.

“The black cowboy today gets everything he has coming to him. Myrtis had to do it the hard way. He was top notch, but he came along in a tough era. I don’t recall where we were-it may have been Gladewater, Texas-and Chuck Parkinson was the announcer. Myrtis rode this bad, bad bull. And Chuck made the comment over the loudspeaker, looking across the arena at the judges-‘Now what are you going to do?’ I think he was trying to tell the judges, ‘That was a great ride and we all saw it.’ Myrtis Dightman belongs in the Hall of Fame. He never would have gotten into the Hall of Fame if things hadn’t changed-and for the better.”

Let’s be kind and colorblind, and let the talent do the talking.

Courtesy of PRCA