By: Keith Ryan Cartwight
Lu Vason was a lot of things to a lot of people.
He was a son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather. He was also a loyal friend.
He was a boxer and served in the Army. He was a hairstylist, model, actor, and, later, a concert promoter, entrepreneur, and innovator, who, in 1984, saw an unfulfilled need to share and correct the hidden history of Black cowboys.
Vason, who passed away in May 2015, knew these unsung Black heroes had played a significant role in shaping the American West.
And, yet, while attending Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming in the early 1980s, the historic event was void of Black cowboys. Just as their contributions — 1 in every 4 was Black in the Old West — had been left out of U.S. history books and written out of Hollywood scripts, Vason thought their absence from rodeo was an injustice.
“Decided I would eliminate the myth by forming a Black rodeo company,” said Vason, in an archived interview, and so began the history of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “We can do one of these and just make it Black.
“When I mentioned the idea of doing a rodeo, everybody told me I was crazy.”
Now, 90 years after the passing of Bill Pickett — once described as “the greatest sweat and dirt cowboy that ever lived” — and for the first time in the rodeo’s 37-year history, the country’s most significant national touring Black rodeo is being broadcast on network television.
Sunday afternoon’s Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the culmination of a historic Western sports weekend.
After a partnership in February, the PBR is pairing its Unleash the Beast event, which takes place June 11-12 in Las Vegas, with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo’s first event of 2021 on Sunday, June 13 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
CBS will air a one-hour special featuring highlights and event storylines Saturday, June 19 at 1 p.m. ET., which also happens to be the special day known as Juneteenth.
Since its inception, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has been held in 30 cities across the country.
In addition to the adventure of attending a rodeo—the Bill Pickett events include bull riding, bareback, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, barrel roping and ladies steer undecorating—each performance is an opportunity to inspire youth, teach African American history and make a difference in the world, according to Vason’s widow Valeria Howard-Cunningham.
“It’s all about educating (and) entertaining communities all across the U.S. about the roles of Black cowboys and cowgirls and the development of the West and to showcase the skills of Black cowboys and cowgirls today that were overlooked for so many years,” said Howard-Cunningham, in an interview with ESPN.
“We go into large metropolitan cities with large African American communities,” she continued. “We’ve gotten total support, and the communities feel like the rodeo is theirs. Once people have had an experience with (Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo), they take pride and they feel it is theirs, and they get to see that there truly are Black cowboys and cowgirls. It’s not made up. It’s real.”
Bill Pickett rodeos are historical events—none more so than this event in Las Vegas—that communities can learn from.
Over the past 37 years, Vason and now Howard-Cunningham have sought to set a new standard for Black rodeos. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the first rodeo association to be led by an African American woman, has established itself as the most significant nationally touring Black rodeo.
“We wanted to create a platform to allow the Black cowboys and cowgirls who were in other rodeo associations to develop their skills,” Howard-Cunningham said. “That was the whole premise of what we created. And then things opened up.”
They set a new and better standard as far as expectations when it comes to Black rodeos.
As Black audiences have been introduced to Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the more they have embraced and, in turn, taken pride in this otherwise overlooked piece of their history. But it is just as important for the association to introduce its brand and its place in American history to audiences of all ethnicities.
“We have diverse audiences coming to our rodeos,” said Howard-Cunningham. “We want to educate people to see there are talented and skilled Black cowboys and cowgirls in these rodeos.
“One of the reasons to partner with PBR is to tell that story to everybody—no matter the color of their skin or ethnic background. They need to know what the trueness of history is and see history is still being made.”
It is not the first time the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has leaned on others to help illuminate its story.
Much like the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, Bill Pickett events have drawn Black celebrities.
Glynn Turman, James Pickens Jr., Reginald T. Dorsey and Obba Babatundé have been featured in grand entries from the beginning. Others — like Pam Grier, Lisa Raye, Jennifer Raye, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx and Danny Glover — have also made a strong impression.
In 1984, Vason called Turman and Glover to ask if they would serve as grand marshals on horseback and welcome the crowd at his Los Angeles rodeo. Turman got more involved. As the rodeo unfolded, he was on horseback as a pickup man during the rough stock events, did some hazing during the steer wrestling, and helped the rodeo hands gather cattle.
Babatundé has also been a featured performer during the grand entry.
“I absolutely love it,” Babatundé said. “I love it because people that know me from my career are always pleasantly surprised and shocked when they see me around horses and the way I ride. I had a signature move that I did for years.”
He would ride into the rodeo arena with both hands extended out to the side parallel to the ground. He would hold the reins between his teeth and ride in at a full gallop. Using only his legs and knees, he would command the horse to turn left or right, slow down or stop.
Audiences and spectators would be in awe of his horsemanship skills.
Afterward, Babatundé often would make his way up into the stands, where he would receive a similar reaction from one year to the next. He would ask, “Have you been here before?”
The response was almost always, “It’s my first time.”
“At the Bill Pickett Rodeo — generally every year — over 80 percent of the audience are first-timers,” said Babatundé, who enjoys the smiles, shrieks, and shrills of excitement that come with introducing urban audiences to a lifelong passion that has provided his extraordinary life with balance.
Five generations have grown up knowing the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, which continues to celebrate the history of Black cowboys and cowgirls and their contribution to the development of the West and to allow today’s Black cowboys and cowgirls an opportunity to showcase their skills and compete in rodeo without exclusion.
“It really represents the best of the best,” said Babatundé. “I’m so honored to be a part of that tradition. I’m so proud to be a member in good standing, and I’m honored that they allow me to be identified as one of their grand marshals.”
Howard-Cunningham concluded, “I feel we are obligated to create the highest-level platform we can for the cowboys and cowgirls to participate in. And, at the same time, find a way that’s entertaining for people to learn and get exposed to rodeo. If we can coordinate those things and make it fun as an event, we are successful. Nobody does it the way we do it, and I take pride in that.”
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 and cowgirls throughout the 2021 season.
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