The afternoon of Friday, Sept. 3, 1971, was beautiful and sunny in Harlem as residents lined the streets and hung their heads out of second- and third-story windows to watch a three-mile parade of cowboys make their way through the city on horseback.
These were not the cowboys New Yorkers were accustomed to seeing on television or the silver screen, though. They were black cowboys, and a day later, more than 10,000 people — many of whom had never seen a rodeo, much less an all-black rodeo — made the short walk across the Triborough Bridge to Randall’s Island for the Black Western Cultural Show and Wild West Rodeo, or what became known as a “rodeo with soul.” Outside of Downing Stadium (since demolished), they bought programs for $1 and cheap straw cowboy hats for children along with other Western-themed novelty items. Inside, many of the cowboys from out West were competing on grass instead of dirt for the first time and finding it a rather slick surface for calf and team ropers to stop their horses.
United Press International reported that the purpose of the event was “to show ghetto-bred youngsters that there are black cowboys” from Texas, Oklahoma, California, Illinois and Michigan, along with Connecticut, New Jersey and even New York. The Raleigh, West Virginia, Register ran the story ran under a headline that read I Thought They Were All White. More accustomed to running rodeo stories, The Dallas Morning News headline simply read Black Cowboys.
Muhammad Ali was there and the Associated Press wrote that seeing the legendary fighter-turned-war protester-turned-civil rights activist “excited even the hard-bitten youngsters of the Harlem ghetto.”
The history of black cowboys intersects with America’s struggle for racial equality, human rights and social justice. New York’s first black rodeo brought out more than 50 of the best black cowboys, who otherwise would have been competing in smaller, less publicized and often overlooked events. The whole weekend was chronicled in a documentary titled Black Rodeo that has since defined the legacy of this historic event.
“With friends telling friends, America will again remember the heroes it has forgotten,” Bud Bramwell, president of the American Black Cowboy Association, wrote in a letter published at the front of the event program. Bramwell went on to explain that cowboys had long symbolized strength and courage and that black children had not been able to identify with cowboys because they had never seen them.
“From now on we want you, and your children, to know the proud role our people played in the Western history of yesterday and today,” he wrote before proclaiming, “Let our pride in our past help us to build a prouder future.”
The idea of staging an all-black rodeo in Harlem began in earnest in 1969, when Bramwell, Cleo Hearn, Charles Evans and Marvel Rogers formed the American Black Cowboy Association. A coin flip determined Bramwell would be president, while Hearn was vice president. The group quickly partnered with the plugged-in George Richardson, co-founder of the New Jersey-based marketing firm Periscope Associates.
Richardson had led Martin Luther King Jr. through Newark, New Jersey, after the 1967 riots there. “He was our contact man with everybody,” said Bramwell.
The cowboys planned the rodeo events, while Richardson, the only African American elected to the New Jersey state assembly in the Kennedy administration, raised money through corporate sponsorships. His wife, Ingrid Frank, who had escaped Nazi Germany via the kindertransport program that brought Jewish children to Britain, handled publicity.
“When we found out there were black cowboys — a friend of ours [Arthur Moore] went down West, up West or whatever you do — anyway, they came back from the West and they saw black cowboys and they took some video and showed us,” said Frank in a videotaped interview for a 2017 award she received from Labor Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to understanding the lives of working people. “We were blown away by them. We said black kids — American kids — have to know this, that they share the legacy of the cowboy.”
Bramwell, who was raised in Connecticut before attending college in Oklahoma, didn’t realize how much American history books had cheated black students from knowing the truth about their Western roots until he returned to the East Coast. That knowledge gap was one reason that many of New York’s movers and shakers thought Bramwell and Richardson were joking when they shared their plans for staging an all-black rodeo.
“Two and a half years ago, we asked the Madison Square Garden people and others for space,” Bramwell told the Associated Press at the time. “They said they didn’t know if we were competent enough and whether we would draw people. Everywhere we went, we got the door shut in our face.”
Bramwell, now 82, recently clarified his comments from 48 years ago: “We had two or three meetings with Madison Square Garden. We just couldn’t get the terms that we felt we could work with to get in, but we were close.”
One issue Bramwell noted was that Madison Square Garden executives underestimated the willingness of black cowboys to travel East. “They didn’t think we would have enough guys to have a rodeo,” he said.
Instead, the group settled on Harlem.
Underwritten by Rheingold Beer and Pepsi-Cola Metropolitan Bottling Co., the cowboy association and Periscope offered cowboys $500 for every truck that drove east from Texas, Oklahoma or elsewhere.
The inducement worked: Mike Latting, who would go on to be the first African American to compete at the College National Finals Rodeo in 1973, entered the competition along with a pair of Hollywood stuntmen, Gene Smith and Cowtown Gene Walker. Bailey Prairie Kid and Billy the Kid were there, too, as was Alfred Peet, Rocky Watson, Archie Wycoff and Seneca Charles.
“As long as they had three or four guys in the truck and a couple of horses, it paid their trip up from Texas,” Bramwell recalled.
Nelson Jackson made the trip from Oklahoma with Chris Prophet and Rubin Hura. The trio showed up two days early and used part of their $500 to stay at the Park Central Hotel across the street from Carnegie Hall.
“It’s a five-star hotel,” said Jackson, now 78, of the property that hosted the NFL draft from 1980 to 1985. “I wish I could stay there now.”
- Take a look inside of a touring all-black rodeo
- Fred Whitfield and the Black Cowboys of Rodeo
- Fred Whitfield and the Black Cowboys of Rodeo
- ‘The Black Cowboy’ will shine light on history hidden in plain sight
- The reign of the black jockey
It was Jackson’s first time in New York City. He grew up in Bixby, Oklahoma, a town of fewer than 4,000 people, guiding a horse-pulled-plow and milking cows by hand. But the then-30-year-old was not intimidated by what could have been an overwhelming environment. He won the steer wrestling event and was third or fourth in the calf-roping competition that was ultimately won by Bramwell.
A year later, when documentary filmmaker Jeff Kanew released Black Rodeo, Jackson could be seen riding horseback alongside Ali, who arrived in Harlem in a white convertible Rolls-Royce before sitting horseback in front of the famed Apollo Theater. Later, Ali let a pair of Oklahoma cowboys — Clarence LeBlanc and Gerald Vaughn — “drive his car around the running ring” that circled the football field at the stadium.
Ali even rode on a tame, aging bull hauled East by Moses Fields Jr., who was a plumber by trade.
“Just slide down, Mo,” a cowboy is heard in the documentary encouraging Ali, who was cautious because of the size of the bull’s horns.
“If this bull bucks, sucker, you better run like hell,” Ali said. “I’ll whip you worse than I whipped Joe Frazier.”
Actually, six months earlier, on March 8, Ali had lost a brutal 15-round decision to Frazier at Madison Square Garden, in a heavyweight bout that has come to be known as the “Fight of the Century.”
Ali’s appearance had been arranged by Kanew, who previously made a living editing movie trailers. Ali and Kanew shared the same lawyer, Bob Arum, who would form Top Rank two years later and go on to establish himself as a major force in boxing. Arum had been working with Ali since 1966, a year before he was banned from the sport for three years when he refused to be drafted.
According to Leigh Montville’s biography, Sting Like a Bee, Ali suffered financial ruin in his years away from boxing. Bills went unpaid and he borrowed money from friends and acquaintances, including his heavyweight nemesis, Frazier, that also went unpaid. To make ends meet, he began making paid public appearances for a few thousand dollars each. Even after Ali returned to boxing in 1970, Arum continued negotiating a full schedule of appearances, including the all-black rodeo in Harlem.
“I arranged it,” Kanew said of Ali’s visit the afternoon before the competition. “And paid it. It was $5,000 plus some net profit points [from the release of the documentary], but there were no profits.”
Earlier that week, Jim Gibbons, a member of the documentary crew and, years later, an executive vice president of marketing at Paramount Pictures, was tasked with carrying an envelope containing Ali’s cash payment to Arum’s Manhattan office.
Ali was at the event for no more than two hours. Yet his appearance, which was featured as the climactic third act of Kanew’s documentary, established the rodeo as a pivotal moment for all black cowboys — past and present.
“He recognized that this was part of his culture,” Gibbons said. “Once he was there, he totally understood what it was about, and I think he was as mesmerized by them as they were by him.
“He was a champ for more than just boxing. … They love that he took the time to be there.”
Longtime New York councilman Bill Perkins described the combination of Friday’s parade and Saturday’s rodeo as a romantic and attractive moment in the city’s history. He saw the competitors as “authentic cowboys” and tremendous athletes. More importantly, as Harlem natives, Perkins and Jacob Morris, president of the Harlem Historical Society, saw these never-before-seen newcomers to urban America as “real-life heroes.”
“Kids loved it,” Perkins recalled in an interview last year, “and parents loved it because their kids loved it.”
The dream of bringing an all-black rodeo to the East Coast actually began several years earlier after Arthur Moore, a longshoreman from Newark, New Jersey, and his wife Evelyn traveled to Oklahoma in fall 1967. Moore had been fascinated by cowboys for years and introduced his son, Barry, to horseback riding. Barry eventually met and was mentored by a black rodeo cowboy named Jesse “Charlie Reno” Hall and went on to become a well-regarded steer wrestler.
On their trip, Arthur and Evelyn Moore met Bramwell and Hearn, both who attended Oklahoma State University and had been members of the OSU Cowboys rodeo team. Hearn had originally gone to Oklahoma State on a football scholarship, but within a year of his arrival he turned in his shoulder pads for a piggin’ string and joined the rodeo team full time. Upon hearing their stories and attending black rodeos in Drumright, Oklahoma, and nearby Okmulgee, Moore was inspired to showcase their talents.
But Moore was unable to get people to take his proposal seriously when he returned to the East Coast. Aside from introducing Richardson to Bramwell and Hearn, Moore ultimately played no role in the Harlem event or any of the five other all-black rodeos that the American Black Cowboy Association and Periscope Associates teamed up to produce in a three-year span from spring 1970 to June 1973.
Barry Moore, who died in October at 68, understood his father couldn’t pull off such a big event. But out of love and loyalty, the younger Moore could not bear to compete in the steer-wrestling event in Harlem. He chose to spend the weekend with Charlie Reno, who was recovering from a broken neck.
The first of the black cowboy association’s events took place in 1970 in Newark, where Periscope was based. A year later, they organized a trio of events. The first was held in Baltimore, where newly elected Mayor William Schaefer presented Bramwell with a key to the city. That was followed by an event at the National Guard Armory in Jersey City and then, on Sept. 4, the far-more memorable event in Harlem.
At the time, Bramwell, who was 34, and Hearn, who was 32, told various media outlets they planned to produce a 12-city tour in 1972. The tour never happened. Instead, they produced one event the next year, in Philadelphia, and their final event, a year later, in 1973, at the Freehold Raceway, in Freehold, New Jersey.
Newspaper accounts claim 25,000 people attended the Freehold event on Saturday, and 10,000 youngsters attended a performance on Friday. Bramwell and Richardson reached out to anti-poverty organizations to offer a reduced rate of $2 per student for the Friday show.
In her 2017 interview, Frank recalled, “Friday afternoon we always gave a … performance for schools in the neighborhood, social service agencies. That was sold out. It was butt-to-butt on the benches.”
In an interview at his home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Bramwell said that despite their success, the American Black Cowboy Association ceased operation because its ultimate goal was to host an event at Madison Square Garden. With little chance of making that a reality, Bramwell and Hearn focused on their respective rodeo careers. There was not another black rodeo in New York until George Blair organized a series of smaller rodeos in Harlem, Brooklyn and Coney Island from 1984 to 1997 with the help of two East Coast-raised black cowboys, Charlie Reno and Steve Robinson.
As for the documentary, unfortunately, Black Rodeo, which held a premiere screening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, failed to find an audience following its release in May 1972.
Kanew, now 74, who later directed Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and episodes of the television series Touched by an Angel, did not go into the rodeo project with the idea of making money. He wanted to make a film that, according to Gibbons, was “different and original.”
Cinerama was initially enthusiastic about the response to a test screening and acquired the rights to distribute the film. However, according to Kanew, some executives grew weary and were not sure a “clean, wholesome, positive black movie” would find an audience at a time when blaxploitation films were popular.
Still, a film executive in Los Angeles saw the movie poster showing a black cowboy on a horse set against the New York skyline and summoned Kanew to a meeting.
In Kanew’s telling, the meeting was short-lived: “Tell me this is about a black stud that comes into Harlem and f— everybody,” Kanew recalled the executive saying.
“No,” he replied. “It’s a documentary about a black rodeo.”
“Then forget it,” the exec said.
When he returned to New York, Kanew grew more frustrated when he learned that Cinerama had not budgeted any money for marketing his film. Despite receiving mostly positive reviews and national coverage, the documentary and the rodeo it chronicled both largely faded from memory.
“At the end of the day,” LeBlanc shrugged, “it was probably just another rodeo.”
“We were just putting on a rodeo,” Bramwell concluded, “and that was it.”
But maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, it was something more. The film’s narrator was veteran actor Woody Strode, who appeared in the classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and also helped break the color barrier in the NFL. “It’s quite a thing for all of America to know all of its history and not have it edited out,” Strode said before the closing credits of Black Rodeo. “[It’s] the start of something new for black people. I’m glad I lived to see it. … I am proud to see what it means for a man to live under the sun and make a place for him under the sun equal to all men.”