The Legacy of Black Cowgirls

Ahead of Beyoncé’s release of Cowboy Carter, we spoke to Black women and girls making waves in rodeo.

Kortnee Solomon participates in final junior breakaway competition at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Sunday, June 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This article was originally published by Capital B News, a Black-led, nonprofit news organization reporting for Black communities across the country.

Carolyn Carter proudly rides on her horse as she presents the American flag and Black American flag on opening day of one of the Black rodeos.

It’s the 1980s, and the 20-something-year-old is at home in a sense. She’s steer decorating (steer wrestling for women) and barrel racing. The Oklahoma native fell in love with the rodeo after her sisters dragged her to one in Washington, D.C., in 1981. They threw her on a horse. She rode, held on, and ended up winning $900. She became hooked and kept attending rodeos. This led her to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, where she worked and competed from its inception until 2022, when she and her team started the Midwest Invitational Black Rodeo. 

“I had a passion for it,” the now 65-year-old said. Her daughters, granddaughters and great-grandkids all rodeo now.  “I didn’t grow up in it. I was put in it. … We have five generations on the table right now.”

When Beyoncé announced Cowboy Carter—an ode to her country and Southern roots—it sent some fans and naysayers into a social media frenzy. But for Carter, the real-life cowgirl and rodeo veteran, and others, it was a time to feel nothing but pride. Their wish for all the Beyoncé uproar? Those folks will finally recognize that Black women and girls reign supreme at the rodeo. Carter added that most people questioned why Bey, a Houston native, hadn’t entered the country music scene sooner.

“Now, she’s finally kicking down the door, whether they like it or not,” Carter told Capital B. “They can’t see Black people doing it, even though they have been. … We’ve had it but never really made it, and with Beyoncé and her platform, [they question] why have you not done it before?”

The recent discourse has been focused on the two album covers, especially the one where a platinum-blonde-haired Queen Bey is sitting on a horse holding the American flag. But truth be told, country music and rodeo culture are part of Black culture.

Instead of calling it a country album, she labeled it “a Beyoncé album,” which dropped Friday, March 29, as Act II, a continuation to Renaissance.

But this isn’t Bey’s first rodeo.

“This album has been over five years in the making. It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post. “But, because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive.”

In 2016, she teased her country roots with “Daddy Lessons” from her iconic Lemonade album. Yet, at the time, the Recording Academy’s country music committee dismissed it for a Grammy Award nomination.

The genre originates from the racial and violent trauma and struggles of Black people in this country. Yet, the industry—and its fan base—isn’t exactly known for laying out the welcome mat for Black talent.

Only three Black folks—Charley Pride, DeFord Bailey and Ray Charles—have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And more recently, Grammy-awarding winner singer Mickey Guyton has called out the racism she’s faced. 

Still, many others say Beyoncé is simply paying homage to the culture and history of Black cowboys and cowgirls. Particularly, a nod to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, established in Denver by Lu Vason, a Black cowboy who wanted to give Black folks a platform in this industry. It is the longest-running Black rodeo in the U.S. At rodeos, cowgirls parade around the center on horseback waving an American flag. 

As one reader puts it: “This album cover means so much more. Beyoncé is reclaiming what Black Americans created, the American flag falls under that as well. We built this country off our backs. She’s taking the reins & makin a statement. She’s redefining our history.”

Similar to Bey’s recent struggles and the exclusion of Black folks in country music, Black cowboys and cowgirls have also been overlooked. Capital B spoke to Black cowgirls and women in rodeo about their deep appreciation for the rodeo. They hope that the attention on Bey will encourage others to support local rodeos and gain a better understanding of the history and the women who continue a tradition that started generations ago

The Backbone of Black Rodeos

In 1984, Valeria Howard-Cunningham learned about rodeos when she met Vason, who eventually became her husband. At the time, there wasn’t any Black representation in rodeo, so he created the Bill Pickett Invitational, a celebration of Black cowboys and cowgirls through competition, education and culture. Vason named the rodeo in honor of Bill Pickett, a Texas native of Black and Cherokee descent who invented “bulldogging,” now known as steer wrestling, where he wrestled a steer to the ground.

Though she rides horses for pleasure, she makes it known that she isn’t a cowgirl; just a woman who facilitates opportunities. Instead of competing, Howard-Cunningham focused on the business side of rodeo, especially after Vason got sick. When he died in 2015, she was afraid to take the reins of the organization. Not because she couldn’t, but because she would be the only woman, a Black woman, leading a rodeo association, she said.

She let the fears go, and continued the legacy anyway.

“From the beginning, they used to tell Lu [Vason] he was crazy. He couldn’t be successful. Nobody would support this, and now we’re celebrating 40 years,” Howard-Cunningham said. 

As the rodeo enters year 40, Howard-Cunningham recalled many of their accomplishments:

  • In 2021, the Bill Pickett rodeo was the first Black rodeo to be televised on national TV during Juneteenth.
  • They’ve solidified partnerships with organizations such as the Professional Bull Riders league.
  • They’ve created a host of racing events and programs for youth starting at age 7.
  • They have also established a nonprofit to give scholarships to youth interested in careers in agriculture, STEM, and animal science.
  • One of the biggest accomplishments is that people see Bill Pickett as a viable, Black rodeo association.

“Over the years, people didn’t know that there were Black cowboys and cowgirls, so we have successfully grown our reputation in the communities. We sell out all of our shows all over the country, no matter where we go,” Howard-Cunningham said. “The community is embracing us. They see this organization as something that they can be proud of and something they can be a part of.”

Though people have always jumped on the “bandwagon culture” when it comes to Black rodeos, Howard-Cunningham said she hopes Cowboy Carter inspires people to support a rodeo event.

“When somebody sees something that glitters, they want to get on the bandwagon. Beyoncé is popular, so they are going to draw to that,” she said. “People will have an opportunity to learn more about their history. It’s our obligation at Bill Pickett to make sure we teach our communities about our history.”

Carter, the cowgirl, not only agrees that the community should buy tickets to rodeos, but businesses should provide sponsorship dollars to the rodeos to help cut down costs. 

For Carter, who recently established the Midwest Invitational Black Rodeo, funding is always a challenge. The majority of the rodeos are run by white people who only cater to Black people to drive ticket sales, Carter told Capital B. The popularity only grew after Bill Pickett’s television appearance in 2021, she added.

Instead of creating an open rodeo, which allows eligibility to all participants, she decided to establish an invitational rodeo, which prioritizes Black people and includes other racial and ethnic groups. This has caused some investors or funders to restrict donations or sponsorships, she said, because they see it as discriminatory. It leaves Carter to foot the bill for purchasing additional animals, prize wins, and other expenses for the rodeo.

“Some people look at it as though we’re being discriminatory, and I have to tell them no, we’re not. … We’re simply providing an opportunity for the public to see there are Black cowboys, and we honor our contestants by letting them come and be on an even playing field.”

Carter still competes and doesn’t plan to slow down. In three months, she plans to retire as a registered nurse and focus more on her business. She also wants more parents to expose their children to horses and the rodeo, so the legacy can continue.

It’s More Than Rodeos

Krystal Hargrove didn’t have a farming background or affinity for horses until her boyfriend, now husband, took her horseback riding as a birthday gift after high school.

Seventeen years later, they own South Side Riders, a Georgia-based business that hosts trail rides, riding lessons, and pony parties, and trains horses. Instead of competing in rodeos, Hargrove felt this route could introduce kids to horses.

“A horse in itself is such a beautiful animal. They are so in tune with much more than other animals,” Hargrove said. “They’re very emotional animals and they do a lot. It’s why a lot of people use them as recovery-type animals for emotional and physical recovery.”

Ultimately, the 35-year-old wants to show the public a different side to being a cowboy or cowgirl. 

“When you think of cowboys or cowgirls, you think of the rodeo or competition side to this,” she said. “I’m trying to expose it to be something more than just roping a cow. … It’s so much more to offer.”

Similar to rodeos, though, it’s costly running the business.  They’ve hosted events for celebrities in Georgia, but never get any publicity. Hargrove and her partner are still reeling from shutting down during the pandemic. On a 10-acre farm, they have 10 horses, donkeys, cows and pigs to take care of. Their plan is to host community events and post on social media to spread more awareness about their business.

While it’s a lot to handle, they want to continue the business to pass on to their son, who is only 1. 

“The other day, an Amazon driver drove up and he was like, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I didn’t know Black folks did stuff like that,’” she said. “You see the same people doing things that you didn’t think were possible within our culture. That’s why we keep it up for them and keep it up for my son, so he can become that second generation and then just have something to be proud of.”

Young Cowgirls Keeping the Legacy Alive

Living in the heart of Chicago, Chloe Mitchell didn’t grow up near farm life. Her mom, Cherylen Flagg, did. Flagg’s mom owned a horse, and Flagg’s uncle owned a small ranch in rural Rockport, Ill. As a child, he would take Flagg to the Black rodeo. He even hosted shows and built a local sportsman club for Black cowboys.

It didn’t shock Flagg when her daughter showed an interest in horses at the age of 2.

“I remember taking her with me to downtown Chicago to pick up my paycheck. It was a warm day and the windows were down, and she kept saying, ‘Mom, mom, mom. Horse.’ I said there’s no horse,” Flagg shared. “Once we turned the corner, we saw it. She said, ‘See. I told you, horse.’”

From that moment on, Flagg took Mitchell to rodeos and eventually got her a horse. Now, she competes in barrel racing as much as she can. She’s even brought home some first- and second-place wins. Mitchell said she just fell in love with the horses, how to care for them, and the technical aspects of barrel racing.

“I will probably practice for an hour or more, it just depends,” she said. “You don’t want to overwork the horse too much. Whenever they do something good once, you don’t want to put them up right after. You kind of want to see what they’re going to do.”

But, competing is very expensive. Food and training costs for the horses, travel and lodging for the rodeos, and daily drives to the barn where Chloe practices are only a few of the expenses, Flagg said. Sometimes, Mitchell uses her earnings from wins to take care of the horses. It’s not because she has to, but because she cares deeply for her horses. Flagg is currently raising money through GoFundMe to help pay for Mitchell’s upcoming season.

“It’s a crazy investment, but it’s worth it,” Flagg said. 

But, it’s not just about the money or competitions. Flagg’s cousin owns the land where the Roy Leblanc Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo & Festival, named the nation’s oldest Black rodeo, was held.

“The cowboys came to him and asked, ‘Hey, can we buy the land?’ He told them he wasn’t selling it. They asked to buy it because they couldn’t compete in any of the white rodeos,” Flagg said. “Knowing that my cousin helped secure that and Chloe is going to be a part of it is huge for us.”

It’s about keeping the family’s heritage alive while helping Mitchell improve her craft. She wants to become a professional barrel racer, train horses, and compete in larger rodeos.

For as long as they’ve lived, the Roberts sisters, Aleeyah, 22, and Savannah, 16, have always remembered being on the back of a horse. Their dad regularly rode horses on the farm he grew up on. Their mom competed in Western arenas, doing trick riding and barrel racing. 

Aleeyah enjoys building a bond with horses and the adrenaline she gets when riding. “I don’t care what roller coaster you’ve been on. It does not compare to the back of a strong, powerful horse making quick, fast, low turns.”

Savannah, following in her big sister’s footsteps, said she craves the adrenaline rush, too. She also loves the people she meets at rodeos and traveling across the country. The two Colorado natives have been making waves in the industry. They’ve run in rodeos such as Bill Pickett and won several competitions, including championships.

Despite their success, they’ve had to make a name for themselves to show why as young Black women they deserve to be in this space. Aleeyah recalled being the only little girl of color at rodeos. Though people never treated her differently, people were shocked to see her.

“I had to be my own representation,” Aleeyah told Capital B. “Some people are like, ‘Well, why does it need to be a Black rodeo?’ Black people were not allowed to rodeo. All you have to do really to humble them is to tell them to go look up the term cowboy because they referred to Black men as boys, and then they added the cow part to it because they handled the cattle. … At first, it wasn’t something to be proud of,” Aleeyah said. 

The best part about the work is inspiring a new generation of Black cowgirls and showing great sportsmanship, whether it’s a win or loss.

“I don’t think I’m different from anybody else when I’m competing. I stand out. Am I mad about it? No. No matter what happens, I always put on a smile,” Savannah said. “That’s the way I like to represent myself because it’s so humbling.”

“I’ll receive DMs from parents, and they’re like, ‘My little girl looks just like you, and she got to see someone who looks like her on TV,'” Aleeyah added. “Someone else says, ‘Hey, we’ve heard really good things about you and your sister, would you guys like to ride a horse for us?’ I think the reputation is the biggest accomplishment because it is so impressive when you kind of sit back and look at it. It’s something you can be proud of because it really just came from skill, hard work, and just being who you were raised to be.”

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Aallyah Wright is Capital B's rural issues reporter.