No image of the American West has captured the imagination of generations of children like that of the horseback riding cowboy. Left out of that trailblazing narrative has been the role of African Americans, who accounted for an estimated quarter of the workers in the cattle industry from the beginning of the Civil War to the 1880s.
The horseback riding traditions of Black cowboys have continued over the years in Milwaukee, through various organizations and clubs. Many remember and were inspired by the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo that performed at the Wisconsin State Fair, because it was their first time to actually see African-American cowboys.
One of the latest embodiments of that frontier culture can be found with the Brew City Cowboys Resource Center. The nonprofit organization hosted a community barbecue and trail ride for members and friends on June 5, at the Paluso Guest Ranch in Kewaskum.
Brew City Cowboys included “Resource Center” in their name from its conception, because that is the ultimate goal of the their work. They want to be a service for Milwaukee’s Black community and beyond.
“A resource center provides more than just the ability to ride around on horses,” said Mario Spencer, trail ride planner and event coordinator. “Being a cowboy is hard work, and it takes a lot of time and patience. It’s a way of life, and it means being a role model.”
Besides the community clean-ups, where members go into Milwaukee neighborhoods and collect trash discarded in green spaces, the organization works with vulnerable youth and children waiting to be adopted. Members take those kids to a ranch and let them ride horses, and then teach how to properly care for the majestic animals. The experience has been educational, encouraging, and healing.
“So many people of all ages don’t know that Black cowboys exist. But, we do,” said the organization’s leader, Bennie J. Morris Sr. “That’s exactly why we want to open up a resource center. Our goal is to reach troubled youth and offer this experience as a therapy. These inner-city kids have never seen horses before. The biggest animals they’ve been around are cats and dogs.”
Any time members of Brew City Cowboys have an opportunity, they like to bring the horses into the urban environment. They understand that for most people in the Black community without reliable transportation, travel outside of Milwaukee County to rural areas can be a challenge. Even GPS is known to give inaccurate directions.
“We want to bring horses into the city to show kids they do exist,” added Spencer. “And to let them know there is a lot of money to be earned in rodeos. Some of the top winners are Black cowboys.”
The organization currently uses six different ranches because they do not have their own facilities to stable horses and train local youth. Morris said that they are looking for land and funding to move their program forward.
“This kind of program would help make Milwaukee a safer place,” said Morris. “If kids have their energy directed into horse riding – and the discipline that takes, they won’t be able to put their energy somewhere else that leads to trouble.”
Morris used the example of Wisconsin-based Rawhide Youth Services, which provides residential programs for at-risk and troubled boys, as a similar path to the club’s vision. But his mission for Brew City Cowboys is to help all teens, and before they get into trouble.
“The little kids, they love to see the horses. One day we had two horses out and a little boy walked up to me and he said ‘I want to be a cowboy when I grow up.’ That stuck with me, and that’s why we ‘ride for the kids,’ said club member Michael Giles.
When most people think of riding a horse, they think of the cost as being prohibitive. Giles said that horse riding can be expensive, but not much different than any other leisure activity – like going to a ball game. There are also horse adoption programs, and inexpensive horses.
Brew City Cowboys participated in the 2019 Juneteenth Day parade, riding their horses down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. One of the questions members were often asked was about where Black Cowboys came from.
“White ranchers originally referred to White workers as ‘cow hands.’ Black men were called ‘boys’ out of disrespect. So the term ‘cowboy’ came from putting those words together,” added Morris. “Over the years, Blacks were not included in making movies. So White cowboys were all you saw, like Bonanza or Gunsmoke or John Wayne Westerns. Black Cowboys were erased from our history, but we never went away. We are still here.”
Generations of Americans grew up watching “The Lone Ranger,” but never knew the character was inspired by the legend of a Black lawman. A former slave, Bass Reeves was the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal. Bass Reeves, Mary Fields (a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary), Bill Pickett, and other people of color – who were celebrated in their day – were not given the same recognition as their counterparts in the stories and histories told to later generations.
And while Brew City Cowboys is working to help the community and build a better future for Milwaukee, the club also hopes to reclaim the rightful place of Black cowboys in the history of the Old West.
Lee Matz and Julia Papillon