For the past 40 years, the first weekend of October has brought something unusual to the urban byways of West Oakland: cowboys, on horseback, riding through the streets. But, they’re not your typical Hollywood cowboys. You know the type—square-jawed white men like John Wayne or Ronald Reagan.
Dressed in bright yellow western shirts and Stetson hats, these cowboys are members of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association. They come out each year with their horses, and a pony named Michael Jackson, to tell a hidden history of the West.
The organization formed in 1974 to teach Oaklanders about the role African Americans played in the history of the West. Today, the cowboys, along with their horses, visit schools and churches, host an annual parade and festival, and hold “fun days,” like this one at the City Stables, where they invite members of the community to get to know the horses.
Wilbert MacAlistar is the president of the Oakland Black Cowboys Association. MacAlistar grew up in the small, Central Valley town of Madera, California, a place packed with cowboys. But MacAlistar didn’t start wearing his trademark cowboy boots and hat until he was in his 30s.
“I just liked the image. That hat looked good to me all of the sudden. It didn’t when I was a kid, cause the Caucasian boys wore the hats, they wore the boots. That was them. It wasn’t me. Not knowing the history of the cowboy. Do you know the history of the cowboy?” MacAlistar asks.
Some scholars say that a third of Western settlers and cowboys were people of color—African American, Native American, and Latino. Mexican vaqueros taught the cowboy his trade, but the word “cowboy,” may actually come from the plantation language of slavery.
“The term cowboy, came from not the houseboy, not the field boy, but the boy who milked the cow, who cleaned the cow, they would call them cowboy. You didn’t call no Caucasian man boy, he was the owner, he was Mr. Charlie, the boss, but never a boy,” explains MacAlistar.
John William Templeton is a historian of African Americans in the West. He says that as far back as the 1500s, African American people were on the frontier.
“One of the things that we saw in looking at Spanish settlement was that they would always send the people who had the darkest skin to the furthest outposts.So, that's why 60% of the settlers of Los Angeles were black, and 60% of settlers of San Diego were black."
It’s a kind of hidden history of the West, even for people who study it.
“When I came up I didn’t know anything, that there was any such thing as black cowboys. All I knew was the traditional cowboys—John Wayne and the movies,” says Alvin Brooks, a retired schoolteacher for the Oakland Public Schools. He’s also the historian for the Black Cowboys Association.
“What got me really interested, one lady came to school one day for a Western day,” remembers Brooks. “She was a black lady, and she says, that’s just a waste of time because everybody knew there was no such thing as black cowboys.”
Historian John Templeton says it’s a common misconception.
“When you ask yourself, ‘Oh! I didn't know there were black cowboys!’ Well you should then ask yourself, ‘What else don't I know about the West?’ When we talk about black cowboys, we're talking about black ranchers, we're talking about black gold miners, and we're also talking about the Buffalo Soldiers. So, black cowboys are the door opener to challenge the assumptions of what the history of the West is,” Templeton says.
If the Oakland Black Cowboys Association, and their horses, have anything to do with it, this is one hidden history that won’t stay hidden for long.
You can meet the Oakland Black Cowboys on Saturday, October 4th, at their annual parade and heritage day in Oakland. For more information, click here.
This story originally aired on October 5th, 2009.