Black cowboys reclaim their history in the West

At an annual rodeo in Phoenix, the contributions of African Americans are finally recognized.

As the sun sets over Phoenix’s South Mountain Park on a crisp desert evening, dust swirls over the park’s outdoor riding arena. Laughter carries from the stands and into the mountains as four men and their horses take turns flying around blue barrels and over the pockmarked dirt. They call themselves “As the Crows Fly,” after their unique riding style — blazing over obstacles instead of around them. The Crows work as a team in a kind of horseback relay, training for the annual Arizona Black Rodeo. 

 

Wearing a beige cowboy hat, jean vest, bandanna and worn leather boots, Ricky Magee, who works as an IT technician by day, waits in the middle of the ring atop Cajun, his umber-colored horse, until it is their turn. Just as his partner approaches the last barrel, the two burst out to receive the baton. But as Magee grabs the baton and Cajun catches her stride, the horse steps into one of the many craters in the well-worn dirt. Cajun tumbles to the ground and Magee lands inches away.

In years when a pandemic has not shut down everything, the rodeo is a way to acknowledge African Americans’ long-neglected contributions to Western history. The rodeo celebrates the accomplishments of men like Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy in the late 19th century who started off as a ranch hand in Texas and became a rodeo star famous for his steer-wrestling technique. And Bass Reeves, a deputy U.S. marshal who was famous for the arrest of thousands of criminals in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and who, some historians suspect, was the inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger.

Though historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of the cowboys in the late 1800s were Black, many of them have been erased from the history of the “Wild West.” But at a ranch in South Phoenix owned by David Knight, a retired Black trucker from Indiana, the riding group is reclaiming that history. Though these men are aware of their historical erasure, they are not on some grand crusade to right the wrongs of the past. As far as they’re concerned, they’re simply sharing the traditions that were passed down to them.


Nijhel Motley, 24 + Little Bits
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Nijhel Motley, the youngest of the group, comes from a horseback-riding family: His mother rode while she was pregnant with him, and his father raced quarter horses in Philadelphia, their hometown. Motley rode before he even knew how to walk. Now, Motley studies sports communications at Arizona State University but spends most of his free time on ranches caring for and training horses.

“Rodeo does something good for the soul,” he said. “It gives me a sense of empowerment. We’re doing our part by showing people in this area and in this community that there are Black cowboys around here. There’s always been.”

Motley is well aware of the erasure of Black cowboys from history and the current barriers to their participation in rodeo. “When you don’t have the land and the money and the funds, it’s easy for you to get pushed under the rug,” he said. “It’s a lot harder for us to break through that seal, but it’s happening.”


Jerrae Walker, 36 + Cinnamon
Gary, Indiana 

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Jerrae Walker’s father competed on the Black rodeo circuit, so he spent much of his childhood on the road. The Bill Pickett African American circuit held its first rodeo in 1984 in Denver, and his father’s group, Thorough Laddins, followed the circuit throughout the Midwest. Growing up around rodeos, Walker never felt excluded from mainstream cowboy culture. Horses were just part of his life. “That was what was available,” he said. “A majority of the people that were riding, and a majority of people in Gary, Indiana were Black.”

Walker joined the Marines at 17. After four years and two tours on the frontlines of Iraq, he left the military and eventually settled in Phoenix, seeking a change of pace. He purchased Cinnamon, a strawberry blond quarter horse, and connected with the group of cowboys at Knight’s ranch. The cowboys lacked a large practice space of their own, so Walker bought some land of his own. “I try to lead by example,” he said.

 

Ricky Magee, 35 + Cajun
Franklinton, Louisiana

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As a kid, Ricky Magee helped his uncle train horses. “He believed that if a child can ride, or a young man can ride, that the horse is ready to go and it has enough manners to do a show,” Magee said. “I got hooked from just riding and training the horses.”

Magee and his uncle traveled from his hometown of Franklinton, Louisiana, to Mississippi to showcase the horses. The tradition originated on his grandfather’s 40 acres, where he’d raised horses and cattle. For Magee, the riding wasn’t just a hobby, but a way to make extra money. Magee’s uncle helped him buy Cajun, a quarter horse with a blond mane, from a ranch in Oklahoma seven years ago. Magee moved to Phoenix about a year ago, excited about living in the “Wild West,” he said, where people ride horses in the streets and openly carry guns. Knight’s ranch felt like a secret society. “I didn’t think Black people thought it was cool to ride horses,” he said. “I’ve been called country for a long time.”

 

Shaheed Muhammad, 32 + Shaka
South Central, Los Angeles, California 

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Shaheed Muhammad is 6 foot 6, so he knew he needed a tall horse. He and Shaka, his lanky chestnut thoroughbred, tower over their teammates. He grew up watching the “good guys,” who were typically white, swoop in on horseback in movies, wearing fancy hats and shiny boots. “I’ve always had an affinity for horses,” he said. Back then, however, he was drawn to more popular aspects of Black culture in South Central: hip-hop and basketball. Once he learned that his dad had conducted search-and-rescue missions on horseback, though, Muhammad’s own interest in horseback riding was renewed. He met Shaka on a friend’s ranch, and bonded with the horse on weekly rides. His journey through the “horse game,” as he calls it, had been lonely before he discovered Knight’s ranch.

The gatekeepers that surrounded him in his early days of riding were white; he was often misled and misunderstood by arrogant riders.“They felt like they were God’s gift to horses,” he said. “They feel like it’s their culture that they’ve mastered.” As he watched those riders show off their expertise and dominance, the Westerns he’d watched took on a different meaning. In their assertion of ownership, not only of their horses but of the culture itself, he began to see what was wrong with America’s past. “Now that I look back as an adult, these were actually the bad guys,” he said. “You’re conditioned to believe this image of cowboys, but these people are intruding on people’s land and stealing.”

  • Shaheed and Nijhel share a laugh while riding at Jerrae’s new property in Laveen, Arizona.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Nijhel “Jimmy” Motley showed up for ride with his teammates on a recent October afternoon in Laveen, Arizona.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Shaheed Muhammad gives his horse, Shaka, a run on a recent October afternoon.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Jerrae Walker ties up his horse, Cinnamon.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Jerrae recently purchased a property in Laveen, Arizona, where the team can now gather to ride.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Jerrae Walker’s horse, Cinnamon.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Shaheed‘s spurs.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Hoofprints in the dirt.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Shaheed Muhammad and Nijhel “Jimmy” Motley are two of the members of the “As the Crows Fly” rodeo team.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • “As the Crows Fly” is a team of black rodeo riders from all over the country. They found each other in Phoenix, Arizona.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
  • Shaheed waves to one of Jerrae’s neighbors, as he and Nijhel take their horses back to their stable for the evening.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Daja E. Henry is a writer and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. She is a graduate of Howard University and currently covers health disparities in underserved communities across the Southwest. She is bilingual and has told stories from Panama, Guyana, Cuba and the American South. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of a horse from Freckles to Little Bits.