- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

CONYERS, Ga. — What led the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the nation’s best-known black leaders, to trade his Sunday church clothes for Western wear and jump on a horse? “A lot of prayer,” joked Mr. Lowery, who served as grand marshal for a recent stop of the Bill Pickett International Rodeo.

The all-black rodeo, named for the black cowboy who invented the art of bulldogging, has been touring the nation for 21 years. But Mr. Lowery, 82, said the history lessons offered at every show need to reach a wider audience and do more than spread the story of one man.

“I agreed to do this because our history with the building of the West has been saturated with vanishing cream. Blacks did play a significant role in pushing the frontier,” Mr. Lowery said from beneath the brim of his big cowboy hat.

In pushing the civil rights frontier, Mr. Lowery founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy in 1957.

Even with Mr. Lowery’s half-century of experience, the rodeo may have been the first time he has been welcomed with such country-western warmth. “Thank you, Dr. Lowery, for being with us, pardner,” the public-address announcer blared.

The rodeo proves there are still plenty of black “pardners” anxious to compete in a sport more commonly associated with whites. More than 50 cowboys and cowgirls competed in the rodeo’s latest stop in Georgia.

The all-black rodeo has served as a launching pad for some successful pro rodeo stars, and more are moving up.

ProRodeo’s first black champion was bull rider Charles Sampson in 1982. In 1999, Fred Whitfield became the first black cowboy to claim a multiple-event world title. Four years later, he became only the third cowboy to reach $2 million in career earnings. He was elected to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2004. Mike Moore, Ronnie Fields and others join Mr. Whitfield in the current ranks of black rodeo stars.

Nearly 30 years ago, when young entertainment promoter Lu Vason attended his first rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyo., he didn’t find an integrated competition. “My curiosity was piqued as to why there were no black cowboys,” he said.

Later, Mr. Vason visited the Black American West Museum of History in Denver, and it was there he learned about Bill Pickett, born in 1870 in Texas.

Pickett helped refine what now is known as steer wrestling with his success in riding alongside a steer, jumping onto the steer’s shoulders and horns and then digging his feet into the ground to bring the animal down. According to legend, Pickett borrowed a trick he learned from a cattle dog by biting the lip of a particularly stubborn steer.

In part because of his fascination with Pickett, Mr. Vason was hooked on the sport. “I just got excited and thought if I was having that much fun, other black people would have that much fun,” he said. “At that time I decided to put together an all-black rodeo.”

Mr. Vason’s original plan was to stage an annual black rodeo in Denver, but the 1984 debut became a national tour of 10 to 13 stops. This year, the rodeo is scheduled for Beaumont, Texas, on June 18 and San Diego on June 25-26, before moving to Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; Denver; Austin, Texas; Washington and St. Louis.

Before coming to Conyers, about 30 miles east of Atlanta, the rodeo made its first stop of the year in Memphis, Tenn.

The Georgia event attracted a predominantly black crowd of several hundred, including many young children. “Parents bring them to expose them to the culture of the black West,” Mr. Vason said, before adding, “We have to do something with more hip-hop” to attract teens.

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