By: Andrew Giangola
Valeria Howard-Cunningham can recount many memorable moments in overseeing the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo – the nation’s only nationally touring all-Black rodeo, which will be seen on network television for the first time on Saturday.
One indelible memory is a special Bill Pickett “Rodeo for Kids’ Sake” in Memphis, Tenn., that hosted 4,500 youth to learn about Black cowboys and cowgirls.
“A 7-year-old boy walked into the arena and stopped in his tracks,” she remembered. “His eyes got big as saucers. He put his hands on his hips and exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe this! There are Black cowboys and cowgirls!”
Howard-Cunningham’s eyes filled with tears. The boy’s realization validated the 37-year-old rodeo as a vehicle that can awaken us to a hidden past and inspire us to learn more about what the history books have left out.
The all-Black rodeo was born of necessity nearly four decades ago, when Howard-Cunningham’s late husband, entertainment impresario Lu Vason, went to Cheyenne Frontier Days in the early 1980s and noticed an absence of Black athletes competing.
To give these athletes a platform, Vason created a rodeo just for them.
When Vason passed in 2015, many fans and community leaders began asking Howard-Cunningham about the future of the rodeo. Lu was gone, but she knew the rodeo had to stay. Too much had already been accomplished, and too much was still at stake.
She kept her corporate job and took the reins of the organization. She was doubted, criticized and second-guessed. Some said she got the job only because of who her husband was.
Behind the scenes, Howard-Cunningham had always been Lu’s compass and essential business partner. She knew how to market and negotiate contracts. She understood and could passionately and convincingly articulate the mission of this very special rodeo that transcends athletic competition.
Under her stewardship and fueled by a strong team that she says “always supports one another and always has each other’s back,” the rodeo that has visited more than 30 cities across the U.S. has thrived.
To see a Bill Pickett rodeo is to witness generations riding together. After all, the rodeo, named for a man born to a former slave in 1870, who invented the discipline known as steer wrestling and became a popular performer touring the world, has always been about honoring and recognizing the old while nurturing the new stars of tomorrow.
In Las Vegas this past Sunday, Kortnee Solomon, who’s been riding since she was three months old, competed in the Bill Pickett rodeo alongside Carolyn Carter, a 61-year old great-grandmother who’s been with the tour since its founding.
“The Bill Pickett Rodeo is family. It’s people connecting with one another,” said Obba Babatunde, one of the co-Grand Marshals who rode horses out onto the dirt at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to launch the event. “And it’s an important education that Black cowboys exist, just like everyone else in the American lexicon, and were important in contributing to the development of this country.”
Vason and Howard-Cunningham keenly understood the power of Hollywood figures who are accomplished horsemen in their own right. Along with Babatunde, James Pickens Jr., Glynn Turman, and Reginald Dorsey launched the Vegas event on horseback.
“As a result of this rodeo, youngsters learn about their history, where they come from, and how our forefathers contributed to this country,” said Turman, best known for his roles on the primetime soap opera Peyton Place, the coming-of-age film Cooley High, and television shows A Different World and The Wire.
“Kids learn more from TV and motion pictures than they learn in school, and unfortunately, a chunk of history has been ignored,” Turman said. “That CBS has come forward to recognize the contribution of Black cowboys to a great staple of American culture, to rodeo, and the building of the American West shows we are part of something grand, and that gives us a longevity, a shared community, something to talk about without being afraid of one another. That brings us commonality. And that’s what we get from this rodeo.”
And now, Howard-Cunningham has formed a new partnership in which PBR will co-produce BPIR events, piggyback them with its events and provide network TV coverage.
The pairing of two unlikely partners promises to take this historic rodeo to new levels.
“The PBR partnership is huge and a blessing. To put this rodeo on a national stage, I dreamt of that a long time ago,” said Fred Whitfield, eight-time calf roping champion who is arguably the world’s most accomplished living Black cowboy. Whitfield will be in the broadcast booth providing expert commentary when CBS airs the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo’s “Showdown in Vegas: Challenge of the Champions” on Saturday, June 19 at 1 p.m. ET – the day known as Juneteenth.
And so, leading into that broadcast that was taped last Sunday at the MGM Grand, a racially mixed crowd, old and young, from all parts of this land stood up respectfully, many with a hand over their heart, to hear a stirring rendition of the African-American national anthem sung by Howard Johnson. The fans remained on their feet, standing respectfully, hands remaining over hearts, to hear Tifanne LeMay, an American Idol contestant, perform a beautiful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Without a single bull or horse leaving the chutes, by that measure alone, the rodeo was a success in bridging people of all backgrounds, respecting one another, learning about Black heritage, and enjoying a great American sport that’s always unified.
Howard-Cunningham sees the promise of the PBR partnership as not just adding resources and reach to promote history. It’s also about making new history and taking “the movement” that is the BPIR’s most noble consequence to a higher level.
“This history of Black cowboys deserves to be told. You don’t see it in history books or on TV. If we don’t tell it, who will?” she asked. “And now our next generation will be showcased like never before.”
As the historic rodeo in what might be called BPIR’s new PBR era was about to start, Howard-Cunningham gazed up at the crowd at MGM Grand Garden Arena, and a bit higher to where she knew Lu Vason was proudly smiling down, and she sounded a hopeful note.
“It’s hard to put into words what today means to me. It’s been a journey of 37 years of trying to educate and entertain communities about the contributions and impact of Black cowboys and cowgirls in the development of the West,” she said. “And now these athletes have the opportunity to showcase their talents on national television.
“We have an obligation to tell this story until that obligation is no longer needed. I do see a melding of pots. Maybe one day we won’t have to do a separate Black rodeo.”
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