Trails center in Casper recognizes black cowboys
CASPER, Wyo. (AP)--Black cowboys are the focus of an exhibit this month at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper.
The exhibit is called "Black Cowboys: The Forgotten Range Riders." The exhibit features fewer than a dozen photos of black cowboys, along with a handful of biographies.
Alex Rose, a guide at the trails center, said finding historical photos of black cowboys is difficult even though between 15 and 30 percent of 19th century cowboys were black.
"I think you're talking about a group of men who have entirely been left out of the history books," Rose said. "That's why we're doing this exhibit."
Rose said dime store novels and Western movies have whitewashed the history of the West. Yet old photos show that out of the typical 10-man cowboy crew, at least a couple cowboys often were black.
Eight of those cowboys were primarily responsible for driving cattle. The crews also usually had one wrangler and one cook. Rose said the wrangler had one of the toughest jobs--caring for the horses.
"Black cowboys often were given the toughest jobs," Rose said. "They had to prove themselves because they were black."
Rose said black cowboys either were former slaves or the children of slaves. He said most came from Texas with the burgeoning cattle industry.
He said hard work, low pay, loneliness and extreme weather forced cowboys to rely on each other--perhaps eroding bigotry and discrimination.
"There was some sense of equality on the trail," he said.
Black cowboys usually had a better life than blacks who remained in the South after the Civil War. However, there is little evidence that blacks ever became crew chiefs.
Black cowboys also faced discrimination in frontier towns. Businesses banned them and even barred them from white prostitutes, Rose said.
Owen Wister didn't mention black cowboys in "The Virginian" and subsequent dime store Westerns didn't mention them either. Later, Western movies typically didn't have any black characters. If they did, those characters tended to be clowns or jokesters.
Mel Brooks turned the portrayals upside down with his 1974 Western parody "Blazing Saddles," in which Cleavon Little played Sheriff Bart.
"When you think of cowboys, you think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood," Rose said.