LEGACY: A new generation of cowboys and cowgirls are continuing traditions started by African Americans in the nineteenth century
IN THE days before Playstations and X boxes became such a big part of modern youth culture, most young children who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, especially boys, played ‘cowboys and Indians.’
The games reflected the popularity of Hollywood’s western films at the time.
Every youngster wanted to be the strongest and toughest cowboy. No one wanted to be an Indian because they were always seen as the bad guys. Movies always portrayed cowboys as a white hero. However, what many Western fans did not realise is that the original cowboys were, in fact, black.
Now celebrated photographer John Ferguson, widely known as the first black photographer on Fleet Street, has set out to dispel this myth.
An avid fan of Westerns since he was a child, Ferguson was amazed when he found out who the real Buffalo Soldiers were and has since set out to create a multi-media project exposing the truth.
The project, called Forgotten Cowboys, consists of a full length documentary, a photographic exhibition, and a book. Ferguson told The Voice why he is using the project to raise funds in a bid to preserve the memory of the original American cowboys and help their descendants.
How did you discover there were black cowboys?
I was working in New York one year on a story and I came across some information on the New York Federation of Black Cowboys.
I actually thought it must have been some kind of joke, a sideshow circus act or similar.
Like most people, I had never heard of black cowboys, so I was intrigued to learn more and ever since I have researched and campaigned to raise more awareness about this amazing, hidden part of our history by setting up The Forgotten Cowboys project.
Who were these cowboys? Where did they come from and what did they do?
The term 'cowboy' is connected to slavery - from horse boy, kitchen boy, cabin boy, house boy to cowboy. These fine horsemen were born into slavery, but later found a better life out on the range, where they experienced less open discrimination than in the cities.
After the American civil war many joined the Negro Army Battalions or enlisted in the Army Calvary and were given the name Buffalo Soldiers by the native Indians due to their hair and fierce fighting spirit. Others were employed as horse-breakers and cattle drovers, while some were even employed as ranch foremen or managers.
REST: One man grabs a chance to relax after a hard day on the farm tending to cattle
What was the relationship between African American cowboys and the original indigenous Americans?
Relationships with Native American groups and African Americans have been varied and complex. Some Native Indian groups were more accepting of Africans than others and welcomed them as full members of their respective cultures and communities while other Native Indians often disagreed about the role of ethnic African people in their communities and agreed with slavery.
Native Americans were legally allowed to own slaves, including those brought from Africa by Europeans, and the Cherokee tribe had the most black slaves. However, black cavalrymen and infantrymen of Buffalo Soldier fame were well respected by their Indian adversaries.
Who is the most famous black cowboy?
There are a few famous black cowboys from American history, all of whom excelled on the rodeo circuit. Some say the greatest black cowboy of all time was Nate Love, who was born a slave in Tennessee and worked as a cattle drover. Nate was fluent in Spanish and had to prove himself by breaking the wildest horse in the cattle outfit and was legendary for his record-breaking times.
SKILL: Two cowboys getting ready for a bull riding contest
Jessie Stahl was also a black cowboy legend who had exceptional talent, but was seldom placed higher than third at the major rodeos due to his ethnicity.
At one rodeo where he'd clearly won, he was awarded second place. To mock the judges, he rode a second bronco while facing backwards. He retired in 1929.
Why do you believe it’s important for people to know the history of the black cowboys?
As a ten year old boy playing cowboys with friends at school, I was never allowed to be a cowboy. Black boys were only allowed to be Native American Indians. I was told 'black boys were never cowboys' or asked 'have you ever seen a black cowboy?’ Admittedly no, I never saw a single black cowboy.
The only ones we ever saw were your white archetypal squared-jawed, American gun-slinging heroes. If you think of all the screen legends such as The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, right up to The Marlboro Man, there was not a single black cowboy amongst them. So Hollywood has played a major role in keeping the myth alive about the Wild West.
Even African Americans themselves do not know that there were African American cowboys. There's an old saying that goes ‘History is written by the winners' but black people must not accept this false truth. Education is the key – we must rewrite our history.
For further details about Forgotten Cowboys project, please visit the website www.johnferguson.co.uk