Black Cowboy Parade

Black Cowboy Parade

Date Observed: First Saturday in October
Location: Oakland, California

The Black Cowboy Parade in Oakland, California, celebrates the legacy of AfricanAmerican cowboys - and cowgirls. It is the only event of its kind in the United States and seeks to recognize and heighten awareness of African-American contributions to the development of the western states.

Historical Background

It is not widely known that between one-quarter and one-third of the pioneer settlers of the western U.S. plains were of African-American heritage. After the Civil War, there were 8,000-9,000 African-American cattle trail drivers. Between drives, they made significant contributions to the cattle industry working on ranches throughout the western territories.

Blacks in the west were considerable not just in number but also in talent; many were top cooks, ranch hands, riders, and ropers. In fact, historians have noted that blacks held every job that whites held with the exception of trail boss. Many trail drives consisted solely of blacks, save the trail boss.

The demand for talent decreased the amount of discrimination and segregation commonly experienced by blacks elsewhere in the country. In those days, in cattle country, blacks often ate, worked, played, fought, and slept side-by-side with whites. Abilities and courage could - and usually would - merit admiration and respect. The possibility of earning a decent, if not always equal, wage existed. While black cowboys were not seen as white cowboys' equals per se, some were viewed as superiors, in terms of job skills and abilities, and were recognized as such. And they were often treated on a fraternal level, regardless of ability rankings, based upon commonalities of life experiences and other factors. For a short time in American history, fairly large numbers of whites and blacks coexisted in relative peace, on more or less equal terms, than had ever been possible before in the United States, or would ever be possible again for quite some time. Cowboys of the West, as is known today, were not the stuff of movies and folklore. The passage of time has turned fact into fiction and vice versa. White men were portrayed as the romanticized cowboys on the range. Indians were depicted as red-skinned savages. Mexicans were shown as marauding bandits. Blacks were seen in subservient positions. Such stereotyped representations reflected widespread prejudices of the time.

Actually, African Americans have a long heritage of "cowboy-ing." For example, Gambia and other African countries had large cattle lands, and many black men were skilled herders - work that required similar abilities as those of cowboys.

In the United States, southern slave owners with large cattle plantations were interested in acquiring slaves from African cattle lands. In the South, these slaves worked herds in the tall grasses, pine barrens, and marshes. Some rode horses, but most used dogs and bullwhips to manage the cattle. At first, they were concentrated in Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. As more and more cattle farmers moved westward with their herds and slaves, an increasing number of slaves escaped into the northern states. Some ex-slaves swapped skills with vaqueros (Spanish for 'cowboys'), who were often American Indians trained by the Spanish. Black cowboys taught vaqueros how to control cattle, and, in turn, learned horseback riding and roping.

"Deadwood Dick"

One of the most famous black cowboys was Nate "Nat" Love, who was born a slave in Tennessee in June 1854. After he gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War, Love set out for the Southwest and found work on a ranch in Texas, where many black cowboys were employed as horsebreakers or as performers in rodeos.

After three years in Texas, Love went to southern Arizona and worked for 18 years as a cowboy on a huge ranch. He herded cattle between Texas and Montana and reportedly encountered extremely harsh weather as well as unfriendly Indian tribes. During one trip to deliver cattle in Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory, he took part in a roping contest set up by miners and others in the area. In his autobiography, Love claimed that in nine minutes he roped, tied, and saddled a wild mustang - three minutes faster than the next closest competitor. As the winner, Nat Love was given prize money as well as the moniker "Deadwood Dick," the name of a character in a popular novel of the 1870s. In telling stories about his exploits, Love continued to call himself "Deadwood Dick," enhancing his reputation as a fearless cowboy who was able to outperform anyone on the range. He died in 1921.

Creation of the Observance

The first Black Cowboy Parade was held in 1975. A Brooklyn-born Jew, George Rothman, along with other Oakland businessmen raised the funds for this initial event. Soon thereafter, Rothman, along with recognized local activist Booker T. Emery, founded the Black Cowboy Association. The parade has continued annually since.


At 11 A . M . on the first Saturday of every October, thousands of people line the downtown streets of West Oakland to view the start of the Black Cowboy Parade. Horse-borne participants wear authentic western attire: cowboy hats, vests, chaps, boots, and spurs. Also joining in are youth groups, dance troupes, color guards, and drill teams. Parade entrants compete for trophies based upon various yearly categories. Along with the parade itself, there are information booths, food vendors, and entertainment events. Activities last until the early evening hours.

The Black Cowboy Association and the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau actively promote the parade as a family-friendly, all-inclusive event.

In 2001 the Oakland Heritage Alliance conveyed its Partners in Preservation Award to the Black Cowboy Parade. This honor recognized the part the parade has played in making significant contributions to the preservation of Oakland's African-American heritage.

Contacts and Web Sites

Black American West Museum and Heritage Center 3091 California St. Denver, CO 80205 303-292-2566

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum 1700 N.E. 63rd St. Oklahoma City, OK 73111 405-478-2250

Oakland Black Cowboy Association

Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau 463 11th St. Oakland, CA 94607 510-655-7309 (parade information) 510-839-9000; fax: 510-839-5924 Real Cowboy Association #4 Eva Circle Longview, TX 75602 903-753-3165; fax: 903-753-0265

Further Reading

Katz, William Loren. The Black West. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. Love, Nat. The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick," By Himself . 1907. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Mugleston, William F. "Love, Nat." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Reed, Ishmael. Blues City: A Walk in Oakland. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2003. Richman, Josh. "A Lone Cowboy Rides Roughshod Over Racism." Forward (New York, NY), October 17, 2003. . Schlissel, Lillian. Black Frontiers: A History of African-American Heroes in the Old West . New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995. (young adult) Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 . New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Wheeler, B. Gordon. Black California, A History of African-Americans in the Golden State . New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
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