This episode was originally published on July 10, 2020.
In the summer of 2020, images of Black men and women riding horses at protests went viral. But the history of Black cowboys goes all the way back to the creation of the American West. In this encore episode, the Endless Thread team digs into this history in honor of Juneteenth. We also hear from Black riders on how they are carrying this legacy forward today.
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben: Hey folks.
Ben: A very relevant salutation Amory.
Amory: I know.
Ben: The Endless Thread team is working on some tight mysteries, some loose histories, and some wild stories from the internet. But in the meantime, we’d like to play you an episode from the back catalogue that is still pretty relevant today.
Amory: That’s right. In honor of Juneteenth, we wanted to bring you an episode we made in the summer of 2020. So you’ll hear some old credits, if you listen that far, and some different ways of describing the show. But other than those things, it still rings true today in many ways. We hope you’ll agree. Swing into the saddle with us and let’s ride. Hope you enjoy!
Ben: Amory, when I say “cowboy”, what do you picture and what do you hear?
Amory: Ooh, dun-li-dun-lil-dun-dun-dun Bonanza!
[Bonanza theme song fades in]
Ben: (Sings along to the Bonanza theme song.)
Amory: I don’t think, I just realized, I don’t think that “Bonanza” is actually like a lyric in the song, I think that’s what my dad would sing when we watched Bonanza.
Ben: It feels right.
Amory: It feels good, yeah. What about you?
Ben: So, I think about Shane that sad cowboy movie. Have you seen that movie?
Ben: Okay so, a mysterious gun fighter helps a bunch of settlers fight back against a cattle baron trying to run them out of the valley. You know, your usual cattle baron storyline. And then Shane gets shot near the end of the movie and rides into the sunset while his friend, this a little boy yells, “Shane, Shane, come back Shane!”
[Shane movie clip audio plays]
But Shane doesn’t turn around maybe, because he’s dead from the gunshot wound riding dead on his horse into the sunset?
Amory: Hm. Now I don’t need to see it, thank you.
Ben: Sorry for the spoiler. But there is something interesting about that movie. Shane, this cowboy drifter dude who gets hired as a cattle hand and then helps the settlers fight back, he shows up soon after the Civil War.
Amory: Which is when a lot of people were showing up in the West. To find new opportunities after the war ended. But the depictions of this time period. Almost all the Shanes are blond haired blue eyed dudes. When in reality, a lot of these cowboys were Black.
Ben: And a lot of people have only fully understood this just recently. Including the author and podcaster, Walter Thompson-Hernandez, who has been spending time with modern Black cowboys around the country.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: And, you know, in spending time with these with these cowboys, like I’ve learned myself, that one in four of every cowboys in the American West was, in fact, Black. Right. And like these were men and women who, following the Civil War, you know, were left with very little sort of opportunities, economic opportunity. So a lot of folks had headed, of course, you know, to places like New York and Chicago. But a lot of folks headed west. And so, you know, there was a sort of long line of Black cowboys. And, you know, I’m talking about like Nat Love and John Ware and Bill Pickett.
Amory: Pause. Did you know any of those names Ben?
Ben: I feel like Bill Pickett sounds familiar? But short answer is no.
Amory: Okay, check this out. You know the phrase “grab the bull by its horns?”
Ben: Know it? I live it every day.
Amory: Yeah yeah. Well Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy from Texas, he invented what’s called bulldogging. The act of wrestling a bull to the ground by jumping off your horse, grabbing it by the horns, and tipping it over. And of course we use this phrase all the time but most people don’t know anything about the guy who invented it. Walter says the famous Black cowboys are just the tip of the historical iceberg.
Walter: These were all Black men who were essentially known for being some of the most daring and adventurous riders. And, you know, the the the sad thing, right, is that we do know about a few of these names, but there’s thousands of other Black men and women whose names we’ll never know.
Ben: Walter has been trying to change that. He’s been writing about, not just the history of Black cowboys, but the Black cowboys of today. Which it turns out has been timely. Because a lot of people are seeing Black cowboys for the first time. Even saddling up themselves.
Cassandra Johnson: Once we seen everything that was going on and we actually started enjoying it like it was Black cowboys every weekend, like thousands of them. So we started our own group and it just took off from there.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: And I’m Amory Sivertson.
Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Ben: We’re coming to your from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
Amory: Today’s episode?
Ben and Amory: Giddy up!
[Black Lives Matter protest audio]
Amory: After police killed George Floyd on camera. When protests against police brutality broke out in cities around the country. Some of the protest videos that went viral showed Black men and women mounting up to ride in solidarity.
Ben: Some of those men and women mounting up were from Houston, part of a trail riding group that started a few years ago.
Cassandra: My name is Cassandra Johnson. I am the first lady of Non-Stop Riderz and my husband is the president. Non-Stop Riderz is a nonprofit trail riding group that we started in 2016 just to do something different for the community, you know, show them something different.
We are a group of one hundred and fifteen people. And we have people who horseback ride. We have a paddy wagon that the people who don’t have horses, they are allowed to get on the wagon.
I ride on a paddy wagon on back of the truck. Now we have a truck that pulls the wagon. So I can watch everything that is going on on the paddy wagon. We have a driver who drives us and my husband deejays on the paddy wagon when he’s not riding Sunshine.
Ben: Tell me about Sunshine.
Cassandra: Sunshine is a palomino that we have and she’s the baby to our family. We have had, like, seven horses. But I’m just not the horse girl. I’m sorry. I’d rather be on the paddy wagon.
Ben: (Laughs.) Where where do the horses stay?
Cassandra: We have a barn. There’s actually down the street from my house. That’s plenty of barns in Houston, Texas, but our barn is probably like five minutes away from my home. We go to it every day. Make sure Sunshine’s fed. Make sure she’s taken care of.
Amory: For Cassandra and the other members of her group, riding horses is a part of everyday life. So she was surprised when a video of Non-Stop Riderz trotting through the streets of Houston went viral.
Cassandra: I mean, it’s kind of normal to me because I go to a trail rides every weekend. I see I see thousands of Black men on horses. Thousands! But we stay out of the radar, like I said. So nobody believes that, you know, there’s Black men that ride horses. But it, there’s plenty.
Ben: Do you think part of the problem is that people have forgotten some of this history?
Cassandra: I do. I believe we’ve forgotten our own history until now.
Ben: Walter Thompson-Hernandez grew up 1,500 miles away from Houston in Los Angeles. Where, when he was a kid, the sight of a Black person on horseback was surprising.
Walter: When I saw Black cowboys for the first time, you know, I was about six years old. And my mom and I, you know, I grew up about five minutes away from Compton. So we were kind of always in the area. And I see these like, you know, two Black men on horses one day. And it kind of just really startled me, you know? And it really sort of just surprised me that I hadn’t learned about Black cowboys in schools, you know, like in the history books and any sort of like John Wayne films, and Clint Eastwood films, like it’s all just like white cowboys, right.
[Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you though Bill.]
Walter: And I was like, “Mom, like, look!” You know, my mom looks at me and she’s completely unfazed. You know, she’s just like, “Yeah, like Black cowboys!”
Amory: This was the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead Walter to focus his writing on Black people getting into the saddle.
Ben: Why do you think this story of Black cowboys is not really usually included in the mainstream understanding of of like American history?
Walter: Part of it has to do with this like historical amnesia. I think like our attention spans are often really short. And, you know, as a society, we kind of forget things every 5 to 10 years, and like things get sort of repurposed or rediscovered. So I think that’s part of it. But I also think it’s like in line with this sort of like, you know, historical erasure too, right. Where like the gatekeepers, you know, those folks who eventually sign off on these stories, like don’t want it to be too normalized. Right. They’re like, “OK, we can give you the image of a Black cowboy every 10 years. But, like, that’s enough. OK. That’s it.”
Ben: Some of this kind of gatekeeping happened back in 2018. That year, Walter felt like he really had his finger on the pulse. He’d just written a piece for the New York Times with the headline “Compton Cowboys.”
Ben: Walter’s piece was about a new generation of people in Compton who, as the article described it, were trying to create a safer community and challenge assumptions at the same time. Assumptions about who could and who could not be cowboys.
Amory: “Old Town Road”, a song first released in the fall of 2018 by the then relatively unknown independent rapper, Lil Nas X, would also challenge these kinds of assumptions.
Walter: This is my hot take. OK so I wrote that New York Times story early 2018. And I think Old Town Road comes out late 2018, October, November, something like that. And so I’m like, man, like I think…
Ben: Did you write Old Town Road?
Walter: I’m the ghost writer! OK guy, listen, hot take, I wrote Old Town. No, I did not write Old Town Road. I had nothing to do with Old Town Road.
Walter: But I will say that I think the Compton Cowboys in some way maybe helped spur that, you know. And, pun intended, right? “Spur” that.
Walter and Ben: (Laughs.)
Ben: The song first gained a following when the Atlanta rapper started posting it anonymously on Reddit. That fed into posts on the video and music social media app Tik Tok, where kids used the song as a soundtrack to videos. And right around the same time, one of the biggest video games of the year, an outlaw action adventure game set in the Wild West called Red Dead Redemption Two launched. It would go on to sell 35 million copies and become one of the most popular video games of all time. Lil Nas X took rootin’ tootin’ footage of the game and set it to his song. And that video quickly got millions of views on YouTube.
Amory: As the song became inescapable, it launched a new wave of the cowboy aesthetic in Black popular culture: the so-called Black Yeehaw Agenda.
Ben: And a lot of people questioned the validity of the history and the trend. Billboard even took it off of the Hot Country chart, saying it supposedly didn’t meet the standards of today’s country music. A move that, all by itself, caused a huge controversy.
Amory: And then came the release of an Old Town Road remix, featuring White Country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Which, along with launching the song into the stratosphere, was basically an attempt for the song to be recognized as a country song.
Walter: The fact that Lil Nas X wasn’t sort of initially allowed to partake in, you know, this sort of country music genre because of, frankly, you know, how he looked! You know, this was a Black man from Atlanta who had like a hip hop beat, but who was obviously like doing it in a very country way. Like, that’s a country song, a really sort of catchy country song. Right. So I think there is a connection there. And I think this sort of like larger “yeehaw” agenda is something that like has always sort of like tiptoed between like, you know, like hip hop culture and country culture. But I think it’s like a conversation that that was bound to happen. And I’m so happy that that song really took off in a way that no one imagined.
Amory: It took off right as Walter Thompson Hernandez was expanding his 2018 article for The New York Times into a book about Black cowboys.
Walter: I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t email my editors and publishers and I was like, “Hey, guys, like, we have to publish this earlier. You know, like this is really taking off.” So I did that and they’re like, “No, Walter, that can’t happen.”
Ben: Walter’s book is out now. The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland. And it explores the idea of who gets to decide just who and who isn’t a cowboy.
Amory: The definition itself is tricky. Do you have to be roping cattle on a ranch to be a cowboy? Is it about the outfit? The way of life? Or in 2020 America is it something a little simpler? A relationship with a horse? Who gets to take ownership of the definition?
Cassandra: We do rope cows. We do rope cattle. You know, we have living quarters with trailers. We have horses. We have horse trailers. We have barns. There are black cowboys. And there are Black cowboys that choose to stand up for what’s right.
Walter: In writing and in researching this book, I spent a lot of time with different Black cowboy and cowgirl communities throughout the U.S. I spent time in Oakland, I spent time in L.A., I was in Houston, I was in Atlanta. And I was in Philadelphia for a bit as well. And, you know, one thing that I saw was there was there was such a huge difference between like urban riders and rural cowboys, right.
The Compton Cowboys, you know, they are cowboys but they’re also folks who live in Compton. So, you really won’t see them, you know, dressing up with like, you know, cowboy hats or cowboy boots or like Wrangler jeans. Like these guys and women are wearing, you know, Nikes and Nike Air Jordans, you know, and sort of doing that. And, you know, their biggest thing is at least finding a few times a week to ride together.
So the Compton Cowboys kind of, their story kind of begins in 1988 when Myesha Ackbar starts this Compton junior posse organization in the Richland Farms, which is where the Cowboys’ ranch is located at. And they sort of take up horse riding and really sort of like, you know, tap into this cowboy culture in Compton. And so they kind of, you know, each one of them in some way, like a majority of them kind of stop riding around, you know, 13, 14, 15 when when apparently, you know, riding horses, kind of didn’t become cool anymore. You know, I think, like, a lot of them, like started to play sports or like, you know, started to do other things with their lives. But in their 20s, like in their mid to late 20s, they sort of all have a moment at around 2017 or so, when they sort of all start slowly migrating back to the ranch, you know, and they sort of like come together and and officially form as the Compton Cowboys and sort of like become a staple in their community.
Ben: These riders also have a distinct impact on the dynamics of their community.
Walter: You know, in urban communities throughout the US in places like Compton, the the horses are so much more than than a vehicle. Right? Like, they often become a shield and even like a sense of armor that that protect the cowboys against numerous things like police violence and rival gangs. And, you know, there is like such a difference between a Black man or woman walking through Compton or driving through Compton and riding through Compton. Police and rival gangs really sort of like give these guys a pass when they’re on their horses, but when they’re walking or when they’re in their cars, it becomes like open season, a free game.
Amory: Back to Houston, in a minute.
Ben: When Walter was researching his book Compton Cowboys, he went to Houston and witnessed some of the local traditions of the trail riding groups there.
Walter: You know, a place like Houston is really sprawled out and, you know, there’s more opportunities for these huge, massive rides, right, and these like beautiful, like zydeco dances on Fridays and Saturdays, which I actually attended.
Amory: Cassandra, the woman who founded Non-Stop Riderz with her husband, participates in these events every weekend.
Cassandra: On Friday nights, we have dances. On Saturdays, we have trail rides where all of the horses come out and everybody rides. And, you know, music is being played. We play country, we play rap, we play gospel, we play zydeco. You all would be amazed to see how many Black cowboys there are. On Friday, it may be this trail riding group’s dance. On Saturday, it may be this trail-riding group’s campout and ride. So every weekend we have something to do.
Ben: Tell me about what happened last Friday night before the first protest you went to.
Cassandra: One of our members, which she’s in our trail-riding group, she was having her sister a party. But when we got there, the deejay was nowhere to be found. So they asked my husband, can you change, uh, put the music on something different? So when he did put the music on something different, a cop passed by. You know, the first one passed by, he waved and then we seen the second cop pass by. So when he passed by, we noticed, he did a U-turn and came back. When he came back, he parked the car, he got out, he said, “Turn it off.” So we were like, okay. So my husband, you know, he, it’s not his equipment so he fumbled with it for a minute, and then he turned it off. He closed the computer and turned it off. And he asked him for his driver’s license. And my husband was like, “OK, I’ll give you my driver’s license. But what’s the reason behind me giving you my driver’s license?”
“I’m going to give you a loud music ticket.”
I’m like, “Are you serious?”
I’m angry. He’s giving my husband a loud music ticket.
So at this time there, the other two officers are pulling back up who had just passed by. So one of the guys, who was kind of decent, he got out the vehicle and me and him started talking.
And so he was like, well, the officer who I was speaking with, he said, “Well, ma’am, he could just go to court and get it dismissed.” I say, “My husband is a working man. We are tax-payers. Why is it that he has to take off of work to go and sit in a courthouse for a loud music ticket when you asked him what to do and he complied with what you asked.”
I’m like, sir they are rioting downtown. You know, we just we’re here not doing anything. And I’m like, with everything going on in the world today. How can this be or how can this be happening right now?
I mean, you know, I slept on it. I just woke up with anger in my heart, and I know that’s not the right thing to do, but I woke up with anger in my heart because I’m just like, how many times do we have to go through this? So Saturday, we got our members together.
We rode in on our wagon we didn’t take our horses this one particular day. We rode in on our wagon with our red shirts up with our fists in the air and the police were actually lined up, with the tactical gear on, the face masks, and we were able to say what we felt. And I never wanted to be in a police face. I never want to be disrespectful. But I did. That day, I had my sign and my sign said, “How do I explain to my 17-year-old son that he’s a Black king but every time he gets stopped by police he has to bow his head in fear?”
How do we teach them to be proud of who they are? You know, y’all wouldn’t understand how it feel to give your child a pep talk every time they walk out the door. I tell my son, I ask my son, “What’s the protocol? What do you do when they pull you over? Where are your hands supposed to go. When they ask for your driver’s license and your registration, “Sir, can I reach for it or do you need to?”” And it’s so sad that that’s what we have to do.
But not only my son, it happened to my husband that Friday. And it’s just so sad to keep on watching it happen time after time after time. And when this happens to George Floyd, it just hit so close to home to me. George Floyd dated my cousin. And then he lived in the Cuney Homes, and my cousin, you know, they are from the Cuney Homes, third ward. So it’s just like, you know, you become family. It doesn’t you grow up from a child up.
When they called me and told us what happened and I looked at the news, that was the most heartbreaking thing I could have ever seen. Like I would never understand losing my child in that manner. That took the soul out of me, and especially to hear a grown man call for his mother. You know, with all moms, we try to protect our kids. Like I always tell my son, I’m your superwoman. I will always be there to protect you. But when you come down to certain people. I mean, you know, it’s like we lose. So we wanted to walk. We wanted to protest. So the next victim won’t be our son.
Amory: A few days after Cassandra rode on the paddy wagon to a protest, the Non-Stop Riderz took to the streets again. This time on horseback. Cassandra’s husband Marcus and Sunshine, of course, were there.
Cassandra: And so Tuesday. I was at work Tuesday, I did not attend, but my husband did. He was called, you know, and asked to attend the trail ride with a couple of more riders and it was about maybe 30 of them. They rode from 5th ward to downtown to Discovery Green. And it was just amazing for me to see my husband out there fighting for what he believed in. And even, I mean, on his horse!
Ben: Does your husband want to say anything? Would he be willing to say anything if you put him on?
Cassandra: Yes, he just, I mean, do you want to speak with him?
Ben: Yeah. I would love to. Just for a minute if that’s OK.
Cassandra: Yes, sir.
Ben: That would be lovely.
Cassandra: (To Marcus) This is Mr. Ben. He’s writing, he got a podcast. Say hello.
Cassandra: Hi, Mr. Ben.
Ben: Hi, is that Marcus?
Marcus: Yes, sir, how’re you doing Mr. Ben?
Ben: I’m doing well. How are you?
Marcus: I’m great. I’m great.
Ben: Is there anything you want to say about your experience on Tuesday?
Marcus: Oh, it was overwhelming. I was excited, you know, because normally you see the Houston Police Department horses down there and just to see, you know, all the, you know, Black cowboys or whatever, you know, go down the street. Man, it was it was a wonderful feeling. You know, I really enjoyed it.
Ben: What do you hope comes of all of this?
Marcus: I just hope that everybody can come together as one because I love everybody. I don’t care what color you are.
Amory: Over the last month or so, Black cowboy groups seem to have gained a lot of visibility, at least online, because of their presence at protests against racism and police brutality. What do you think it is about Black men and women riding horses that has sent such a strong message?
Walter: I think, historically, especially at demonstrations. Right. Like the police have often used mounted units, with horses, to really sort of, I think, invoke fear in demonstrators. And going back even further right to like sharecropping days or like plantations. Right? With enslaved Africans, I think the sight of of white men on horses represented power and control. And so I think the sight of Black men and women and horses kind of does the same thing for a lot of people. Like, it taps into a sort of maybe subconscious fear of, this like plantation revolt. Right? These Black men and women are are, you know, tapping into these like historic white fears about, you know, the sort of reversal of power or like, you know, revenge or, you know, equality. Right? It just shows that I think, you know, like Black folks have been have been forced to find creative ways to survive over time and generations.
The sight of Black men and women on horses to me also speaks to something larger. Right. It’s sort of speaks to this, it’s a political statement. Right. Like, it’s both saying that, like, yes, we exist. Black men and women can be cowboys, but also we are here to express ourselves in a political way. And these horses are our vehicles. And these horses, you know, are essentially leading the charge for racial equality.
Cassandra: We’re more than just a trail-riding group, we’re more than just a wagon, we’re more than just men on horses.
We’re Black, we’re mothers, we’re sisters, grandmothers, we’re aunts, uncles. So, if it takes me to get out in 100 degree weather in the middle of a pandemic to walk and show you what I believe in, I’m going to do it.
Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, in partnership with Reddit.
Amory: Josh Swartz is our producer, who loves seeing horses at protests because it’s a great example of…
Josh: Animals doing stuff.
Ben: Iris Adler is our executive producer, and she thinks the controversy around “Old Town Road” was just one big…
Amory: Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus, who grabs life by the horns to escape our…
Paul: Boring dystopia.
Ben: Michael Pope is our advisor at Reddit, and he does NOT dance the zydeco. But he does love dancing to…
Michael: Music French people might play at a party or just with friends around.
Amory: Editing help from managing producer Kat Brewer, extra help from Frank Hernandez, and additional music by Paul Vaitkus. Also, if you want to hear more from Walter Thompson-Hernandez, you’re in luck, because his podcast “California Love” debuted this week. It’s an audio memoir that explores what it means to belong, or not belong, to the places we’re from. You can find it wherever you listen to us!
Ben: On Reddit, we are, Endless-underscore-Thread. If you want to contribute art for an upcoming episode or give us a story tip so we can tell it like we did today hit us up there.
Ben: My co-host and producer is Amory Sivertson.
Amory: My co-host and senior producer is Ben Brock Johnson.
Ben and Amory: Yeehaw!