Walking into the Witte Museum exhibition “Black Cowboys: An American Story” in San Antonio, Texas, I was surrounded by the faces and stories of Black men, women, and children — some enslaved, some free — who were an integral part of ranching and the cattle drives in Texas long before the Civil War and throughout the turn of the 20th century.
There were things I recognized, such as photos of legendary Black cowboys Nat Love and William "Bill" Pickett and a poster for the Netflix film Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba, his pearly smile beaming underneath a white Stetson hat. However, situated between the icons and Hollywood personae are countless others whose contributions to the American West and the U.S. cattle industry have long been buried.
Ronald W. Davis II, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the University of Texas in Austin who curated the “Black Cowboys” exhibition with longtime arts advocate Aaronetta Pierce, says the legacy of Black cowboys has been “denigrated, marginalized, and erased.” The exhibition, which runs through April 16, showcases how deeply Black cowboys were part of the ecology and economy of the Americas. “We’re making sure we do justice to these people,” Davis says, “who were denied justice in their lifetime.”
“After I was released from slavery I went to Harris county. There I commenced the cowboy life in earnest. In babyhood days the call of the winds and the wild-eyed cattle appeared to me. I seemed to understand them as no one else. Even though they looked wild to others, they looked docile and tame to me. They were my silent friends and I loved to be with them. That made me take up the life I have lead probably more than anything else. I loved to drive cattle on the open plains and to ride the worse bucking bronch that could be found.
“In the early days Houston was quite a cattle market. Often-times I drove cattle to this market. In those days a cowboy did not have a dozen different mounts, but was lucky, if he had two horses and a pack mule. In that time horses were hard to get that one could handle to do the business. The cowboy who had more to eat than hardtack and bacon was fortunate. We usually camped just where sunset found us and cooked our meat over a fire on a forked stick and sometimes we had to eat it raw when we were shorthanded or had signs of thieves or Indians. Both infested that part of Texas at that time and either was mean enough to do anything.”
A number of artifacts for the Witte’s “Black Cowboy” exhibition were sourced from across the country, including the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as the private collection of Larry Callies, a former mail carrier and rodeo rider who used his life savings to build the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, Texas. Located about 35 miles southwest of Houston, Callies’ three-room museum is an attempt to fill in the gaps where history has omitted the stories of local Black cowboys, including Callies’ own cousin Tex Williams, who in 1967 is believed to have been the first Black boy to win the Texas High School Rodeo Championship following the desegregation of high school rodeos.
“The image of the cowboy is so vitally American,” says Davis, “and has been cultivated in a way to be white American, so that when we see these images of Black cowboys, it’s antithetical to how we understand America’s past. Because America’s past is told in a way that is uniformly white. The exclusion of Mexicans and African Americans from a lot of that narrative is sometimes jarring for people.”
One of the things I appreciated most about the exhibition was its inclusion of women who worked as cowhands and ranchers. Black women worked alongside enslaved and freed men, and many were highly skilled ranch hands who took care of cattle and other animals.
Among the most notable women featured in the exhibition is Henrietta Williams Foster, known as Aunt Rittie. Foster, a legendary cowhand who lived in Refugio County in South Texas, was a formerly enslaved woman born in Mississippi. She was considered a tenacious, tough-as-nails woman who would ride her horse sidesaddle in long skirts and could perform the same work as the men. Simmie Rydolph and Monroe “Bailey” Shaw, two cowboys interviewed by historian and author Louise S. O’Connor in 1982, said she could throw calves and “do anything else a man could and maybe better.” O’Connor’s oral history, which is featured in the Witte’s exhibition, is the basis for a chapter on Foster in the book Black Cowboys of Texas.
Taking in the black-and-white photo of Aunt Rittie, her stern, furrowed brow hovering over her eyes, confirms she was no one to fool with. Foster and other Black women cowgirls have become a source of inspiration for local artists from the nearby Edison High School, who created vibrantly colored paintings of themselves as modern-day, hat-wearing, steer-roping cowgirls as part of the art series “I See Myself in the Past, I See Myself in the Future,” which hang in the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center at the Witte.