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May 3, 2012

The real black cowboys

It’s not a myth: Black cowboys helped settle the Wild West.

Black history taught in schools rarely mentions, if at all, the role blacks had in westward expansion. But there were black cowboys herding cattle and slinging guns in the Wild West.

In its 16th year, The Black Cowboy “Man or Myth” African-American Cultural Festival, held on Greenfield Farm in Rembert, seeks to make history less selective.

“If it’s not something that’s talked about, then they think we’re making this up,” said Sandra Myers, who runs the festival with her husband, Mark. “We do have educational workshops.”

The three-day festival, which opens today, also has horse competitions and demonstrations, hay rides, food canning workshops and more. The Myers own Greenfield Farm where they grow hay and raise horses on the 60 acres. (Nearby, they raise cattle on a 30-acre plot, Sandra said.)

“We both grew up on farms,” Sandra said. “It was something that was in us to do. It was always his dream to be a horse rancher.”

In 1991, they bought Greenfield, which was, according to Sandra, once plantation land that her great-grandparents worked as slaves. Later generations of her family were sharecroppers on the land.

When they moved in, the Myers had two horses and the local community was fascinated.

“Black children had never seen black people with horses,” Sandra said. “The children in this town — we’re talking about the early ’90s — when they saw the horses they were overwhelmed with that. Our yard would stay filled with children who would come to see the horses.”

The Myers’ started teaching kids to ride. As the farm’s popularity grew, the Myers wanted to focus on education as well as entertainment.

The black cowboy is almost non-existent in popular media. In 1992, Morgan Freeman was a supporting character in “Unforgiven,” one of Clint Eastwood’s late-era Westerns. “Posse,” a 1993 film starring Mario Van Peeples, chronicled black infantry returning with gold from the Spanish-American War. In “Switchback,” a 1997 thriller, Danny Glover played a contemporary cowboy — who was a serial killer.

According to a 2011 NBC News report on black cowboys, it’s estimated that up to 25 percent of the cowboys in the West were black. And some of them are famous.

According to, which bills itself as the “premiere black cowboys website on the Internet,” Nate Love, also know as Deadwood Dick, was a hard-working cowboy who prospered after he was freed from slavery in Tennessee. Isom Dart, according to, was an outlaw who ran with a band of thieves. Stagecoach Mary, another former slave, was a legendary, shotgun-toting frontierswoman. For freed slaves, the cowboy lifestyle was attractive because there wasn’t as much discrimination in the West at the time.

“And not only black cowboys,” Mark said. “We had all black towns governed by blacks. We were a vital part of the West. Everybody didn’t go North.”

Mark said he’s expecting about 5,000 people this week. He was handing out flyers recently and one person said to him, “I didn’t know we had black cowboys.” He likes to share the histories of explorers like James Beckwourth, a mountain man and fur trader who discovered Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. During the California Gold Rush, he formed a trail that was then used by settlers.

“(The black cowboys) played a vital part in the West and that’s not what TV has portrayed or our history books,” Sandra said. “We decided to do this event to bring that knowledge to the community.”

The majority of the cowboys participating in festival events are black, but Sandra said the festival is inclusive.

“It’s actually to commemorate the history of the African-American cowboy,” she said. “We want everybody to participate. It’s not just designated for African-Americans. We just want to celebrate that heritage.”

WATCH: Excerpt from Documentary - "African-American Cowboy: The Forgotten Man of the West"

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