By: Keith Ryan Cartwight
They ride bulls and horses, rope calves, buck broncs, fight bulls and even wrestle steers. They are cowboys. But because of the color of their skin, the legacies of their pursuits intersected with America’s struggle for racial equality, human rights and social justice.
Beginning at the dawn of the 20th century, their collective stories were set against the backdrop of reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, the civil rights movement and, eventually, the integration of a racially divided country. Their accomplishments and rightful place in history have largely gone unrecognized.
As PBR celebrates Black History Month, we are publishing three photo galleries heralding Black cowboys of rodeo. Our third gallery showcases the pioneers who came from the West Coast.
Will Dawson was born in Alligator, Mississippi, raised in Detroit and left home as a teenager for Los Angeles with dreams of being a cowboy. A regular at El Fig Stables, Dawson would rodeo and worked in the movie business — his last film credit was “D2: The Mighty Ducks” — before returning home to Detroit after being diagnosed with cancer. He famously appeared on the cover of Sepia magazine. Photos of Dawson are rare because most of his personal memorabilia was destroyed in a house fire.
The buckle in the photograph, which Will Dawson won in Dallas in 1980, wound up in a pawn shop and eventually stored in a closet by a man who had never met Dawson. Long after the cowboy died, the random purchaser located Dawson’s family on the Internet and sent Dawson’s daughter, Sherral Clayton, the buckle for her to keep.
Charlie Sampson and Ted Nuce began traveling together in 1982. They took turns driving Sampson’s four-door Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, while Nuce took care of entering them and handling all the business of being on the rodeo trail. Sampson won the bull riding at all the major rodeos that winter and held the top position throughout the season in becoming the first African American ever to win a PRCA world title. Three years later, Nuce became the first Native American to do the same.
Charlie Sampson was a 10-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier. In addition to his world title in 1982, he was the California Circuit Champion in 1984 and a three-time Turquoise Circuit Champion in ’85, ’86 and 1993. He was a three-time winner of the George Paul Memorial Bull Riding in Del Rio, Texas, and a two-time winner of the Pendleton Round-Up, Grand Nationals Rodeo and the California Rodeo in Salinas. He also won the Calgary Stampede.
Lee McClain, who helped manage El Fig Stables for Tommy Cloud in Los Angeles, and one of his best friends, Gene ‘Nippy’ Smith, are seen here playing tunes while horseback riding on a poker run in which the participants collect cards along the trail ride. At the end of the ride, the best hand wins. With loud tunes and cold beer all along the trail, everyone was a winner on the afternoon McClain’s girlfriend, Sue Cermak, snapped this candid photo.
Dwayne Hargo Sr. was born and raised in San Bernardino, California, where he discovered a horse stable next to Glen Helen Regional Park when his daddy dropped him off to go fishing. He hid his fishing pole under some bushes and poked around the stable until one of the cowboys taught him how to be a stable hand. He worked cattle when he got a little older and eventually became a bullfighter. He is seen here entertaining the home-state crowd with California Governor-turned-U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
The Hargo boys — Dwayne Jr. and Aaron — grew up going to rodeos with their parents, and even though both of them were stellar high school athletes, especially when it came to basketball, they were destined for careers in rodeo. Dwayne Jr. was perhaps undersized and a little young to be getting on full-sized bulls, but he learned from some of the best, including Gary Leffew. If you look closely, his younger brother, Aaron, is behind the chute wearing a black cowboy hat.
Four years into his PRCA career, at the National Finals Rodeo in December 1989, Dwayne Hargo Sr. won the Wrangler Bullfighting Tour championship. He was only the second African American to win a gold buckle at the NFR and the first to win a freestyle bullfighting title.
A year after winning his Wrangler title, Dwayne Hargo Sr. began a decade-long span of working as a bullfighter at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. His wife, Nanette, took this photo of their sons — Aaron (left) and Dwayne Jr. — playing with their father before his 1990 debut.
Reginald T. Dorsey grew up riding horses in Texas, moved to California to pursue an acting career (Hill Street Blues, Return to Lonesome Dove). A decade later, John Sherrod, a Black rodeo cowboy-turned-stuntman, reintroduced Dorsey to his cowboy roots after the two met on the Hawaii set of Magnum P.I. In 1991, Dorsey took what he learned from Sherrod, partnered with fellow actor Glynn Turman (Cooley High, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and won a team penning championship.
Obba Babatunde (Dear White People, S.W.A.T.), Glynn Turman (Fargo, How to Get Away With Murder) and Reginald T. Dorsey (21 Jump Street, 5th Ward) often ride horses together when they’re not filming. All three of them, along with James Pickens Jr. (Grey’s Anatomy), always ride in the grand entry of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Los Angeles.
Reginald T. Dorsey’s buckle commemorating 35 years of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
Keith Ryan Cartwright, a former editorial director and senior writer for PBR.com, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West,” which will be released wherever books are sold Nov. 1. Cartwright is contributing an ongoing series featuring Black cowboys throughout the 2021 season.
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