Little-known history of America’s black cowboys unearthed in documentary, ‘The Forgotten Cowboys’

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A difficult memory from his childhood motivated British photographer John Ferguson to explore the untold history of African-American cowboys in the coming documentary, The Forgotten Cowboys.

“[When we played ‘Cowboys and Indians,’] me and my friends, we were told to be Native Americans and not cowboys because there [weren’t] any black cowboys around,” Ferguson told theGrio.

“The worst thing was we couldn’t dispute it, because there [was] no evidence of black cowboys at the time, until now when we found out there’s been loads of them,” he added. “So, that’s what sparked this adventure, this journey to find the black, forgotten cowboys.”

After he tapped British filmmaker Gregg McDonald to co-direct and edit the project, the two crossed the Atlantic last October to document a missing chapter from one of America’s most vivid and enduring grand narratives. Mesquite, Texas was the first stop. Revealing interviews with several cowboys and rodeo athletes provided information rich enough to fuel a 20 minute film.

Yet, convinced that they had barely disinterred the deeper levels of this historical black spot, the filmmakers returned to the United States this November to unearth more. “It would have been easy to just fly to Dallas, interview a few cowboys and fly home,” said producer Mahlon Prince about the endeavor. But that was not enough. “We wanted to make sure this was a comprehensive exploration of a seldom told story.”

The Forgotten Cowboys in its expanded version will address the underrepresentation of black cowboys and cowgirls in the mass media, despite African-Americans accounting for roughly 25 percent of all cowboys throughout the profession’s history.

“These are things that, if you don’t know, they go on unseen,” Kevin Woodson, a retired bullfighter and MC of the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, said in the film’s trailer. “You’ll have black people that believe, ‘that’s odd for us to do.’ No it wasn’t.”

In fact, Michael Searles, professor of history at Augusta State University (also known as Cowboy Mike to friends and fans) told theGrio that the dignity developed by the original black cowboys was socially empowering for these men.

“In my research of black cowboys, there was often an unspoken pride in doing something well,” the contributor to Black Cowboys of Texas said. “This was especially true when opportunities for respect were not easily granted to black men. In some cases, black cowboys had an opportunity to show by their prowess, skill, and grit that they were the equal or superior to white cowboys. Being a cowboy also made you a person who had to rely on his own judgment.  If you were doing a job on your own, there was no one to say ‘do it this way or that way.’ You made the decision and if the decisions you made proved to the be the right ones, you increased the respect of others and your own self-respect.”

The author and leading expert on black cowboys in Western history emphasized that the job was a rare one that allowed African-American men of that era to openly express their masculinity.