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

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In addition, black cowboys were part of a great migration west of former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Their contributions to building America as it expanded into new territories are remembered by African-American cowboys today.

“It was black cowboys that come out here, that bring food for people, and to have a settlement of a town and make a way for Americans,” Wilbert McAlister, president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, said in a 2010 article on these feats. “That’s a contribution and they don’t want to give us credit. But we were part of that movement.”

Woodson would agree that this has been an egregious oversight.

“It’s virtually impossible to have a true chronicle of the West and not be able to mention some aspect that black people had as a part in it,” he said while being interviewed for The Forgotten Cowboys. Yet, very few people imagine blacks as having a large part to play in the shaping of the American west.

Co-director Gregg McDonald attributes the general ignorance of black cowboys’ existence to the “massive myth-making machine that is Hollywood and generally television.” Almost as surprisingly, modern cowboys remain as prominent as they were in the 1800s, yet still exist outside mainstream consciousness.

To capture this contemporary culture, a fluctuating crew consisting of the two directors with a few additional cameramen drove to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas to film and photograph black cattlemen, professional male and female bull riders, and cowboys working in local communities.

No official date has been set for its release, but the documentary producers aim to premiere the film at an April festival. As educating audiences about the forgotten history of black cowboys is also the primary goal, the filmmakers are considering creating a pop-up exhibition related to the documentary for Black History Month. Learning materials for children and adults might also be developed to take the history of black cowboys to larger audiences.

The anticipated market for The Forgotten Cowboys is wide.

“People are interested in cowboys wherever you go, whether it be Australia, [Japan, Great Britian, France, or Spain],” McDonald said. “Everybody has got that romantic image. We show some of that romance and we show the reality alongside it.”

These responses have been edited for clarity. Follow Patrice Peck on Twitter at @SpeakPatrice and Tumblr.

(This article has been edited to include additional interview statements.)