By: Darci Miller
PUEBLO, Colo. – The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the longest-running Black rodeo in the U.S. Founded in 1984 by Lu Vason, it was born of the need to give Black cowboys a platform and has kept these traditions alive, developed the next generation of rodeo stars and brought the sport of rodeo to a new generation of fans.
It’s also a family affair.
Just ask Denise and Wefus Tyus, the BPIR grand entry coordinator and general manager, respectively. Both have been competitors – Denise in barrel racing and steer undecorating and Wefus in steer wrestling – and their children, Danesha and Denell Henderson, are both currently competing.
“I have been rodeoing with the Bill Pickett Rodeo since I was 5,” Danesha said. “My parents, the story that I tell, met at a rodeo, so I’ve grown up in it all my life.
“I’m going to be honest. When I was a child, I didn’t quite understand its platform, how serious it is. But now that I have grown and done some research and just really been able to see what it stands for, the opportunity that it brings, the atmosphere that you really have – I have traveled to many rodeos, and there’s no other rodeo like the Bill Pickett Rodeo.”
The BPIR took the next step in its development last year, partnering with the PBR to create new events and opportunities. The rodeo has paired with Unleash The Beast and Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour events and has been broadcast on CBS national television.
Most recently, the BPIR was in Denver in January for the MLK Jr. Rodeo of Champions. Its next stop is Fort Worth, Texas, for the BPIR Texas Connection Series. It airs live on RidePass on Pluto TV (channel 720) on Feb. 24 and 25 at 6:30 p.m. ET.
“I’ve actually been around the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo for about 30, 31 years,” Denise said. “Every year, I think it’s growing. There are more contestants. It’s always been about educating about the Black cowboy and cowgirl, and at this point, we’ve just taken it to another level, actually being on TV and just really expanding the market.”
The BPIR has long been something of a training ground for Black rodeo greats. Alumni include Fred Whitfield, a tie-down roper who won eight PRCA world titles and three NFR aggregate titles; Cory Solomon, who’s qualified for eight NFRs in tie-down roping; John Douch, who qualified for his first NFR in tie-down roping in 2021; and even Denell Henderson, who was named the 2019 PRCA Rookie of the Year in steer wrestling.
“This organization gives you that chance to step out and be seen, help Black cowboys get sponsors so they can go out and rodeo with everybody else,” Denell said. “A lot of Black cowboys get a start here.”
“We’re in the direction of training up our young people, our younger generation, so when they decide they want to step out and do professional rodeo, they will know every aspect and step to get there,” Wefus said. “We’ve kind of been set back for a little while, and our cowboys, our talent, have really stepped up. We’ve always had talent, but we didn’t have the avenue to get out here and showcase ourselves. So now we have the avenue, and we are having our cowboys really stepping out that didn’t get a chance to come out and show their talent. Now they’re able to get out here with Bill Pickett, start here, and go forth with their talent.”
The rodeo is named for famous rodeo “bulldogger” Bill Pickett (1870-1932), who was the first African American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame and is credited with helping to bridge the racial divide at the end of the Civil War in 1865. BPIR thought it important to pay homage to Bill Pickett and make his name more prevalent by making him the namesake of their rodeo.
Pickett was the second of 13 children born to Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave.
He left school in the fifth grade in Texas to become a ranch hand and invented the technique of bulldogging, the skill of springing from his horse, grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground.
“That’s where Black cowboys originated from: Bill Pickett,” Wefus said. “He was a working cowboy, and for him, coming up with the steer wrestling event. We don’t do this for a living. We all have jobs. And when we come out, we’re here to show people about the working cowboy, the working Black cowboy.”
Bringing the history and talent of Black cowboys to a national audience is, for many, a dream come true, and the whole extended Tyus/Henderson family hopes to only see the BPIR continue to grow.
“The founder of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was Lu Vason, and that was really his intention, and that was to showcase the Black cowboy and cowgirl,” Denise said. “For it to be on a national platform now is really major, and it’s an opportunity for his dream to come full force.”
“I have a daughter as well,” Denell said. “She’s 4, coming on 5, and by the time she’s old enough to really start competing, hopefully it will open up a door for her.”
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