Rodeo celebrates black cowboys
By Jo Lee Ferguson, Special to the News-Journal
June 13, 2012 at 10 p.m.
Frank "Penny" Edwards was almost 30 years old before he saw a black cowboy for the first time.
He said most of the rodeos he had seen were almost 100 percent "white," from the crowd, to the contestants, to the music. Then, the Longview resident attended black rodeos in Dallas and Oklahoma and saw "nothing but black cowboys."
"Man, all of a sudden, I had an idea. I said it would be a good idea to start a rodeo like this in this part of the country," and tell the story of the African-American cowboy, he said.
To do so, he had to "flip the script," invite all the black cowboys he had seen and change up the music, from the country music he heard at other rodeos to "old school R&B." He also did something he said turned out to be controversial - he called it a "black rodeo."
"I caught a lot of heat behind that, but that's just one of the things that came with it," Edwards said.
Now, the organization he established - the Real Cowboy Association - is bringing its 19th annual Juneteenth Black Rodeo to Longview on June 23. The Real Cowboy Association's first event was in Longview, but today it hosts rodeos around East Texas and into Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Everywhere the rodeo goes, it spreads the history of black cowboys in America.
The Real Cowboy Association gave black people something with which they could identify, said Edwards, who is president of the organization.
"They started bringing their kids, and kids everywhere - we go from the South all the way to the Eastern seaboard - don't know anything about (the tradition of black cowboys). They hadn't seen it, didn't believe it. It's like we're really a part of history.
"You ought to see the kids, the kids' faces when they see other cowboys and kids roping and bulldogging and bareback riding. We try to share with people that the black cowboy had a role in settling the old west."
While the rodeo started off with primarily black contestants, today the mix is about 75 percent to 25 percent black contestants to contestants of other races, he said.
"Cowboys and cowgirls - the good thing about them is there's no racial division in there," Edwards said. "The good thing about rodeo is it's not race against race. It's cowboy against time, and cowboy against animal."
Edwards said his organization has secured some sponsors who have stayed with the rodeo over the years, but it could use more. That's part of the reason he named the organization the Real Cowboy Association. No one's paying the contestants $70,000 or $80,000 a year to train and compete. They're men and women who work Monday through Friday, train at night and travel every weekend or every other weekend to compete. They're people who stop to help each other if someone breaks down on the road.
"Those are the real cowboys. Those are not just television cowboys," Edwards said.