Zachary White raced out into the arena on his horse, dust swirling around the 10-year-old as the animal’s hooves pounded the red dirt and his hat blew off his head. White swung the rope around his head as he eyed the calf he was chasing. With a swift throw, he tossed the lasso at the calf’s neck. The braided fibers missed and landed in the dirt just short of his quarry. White and his horse trotted back into the stall as the judge called “no time” for the ride.
“At first, I felt nervous. I’d never been in that type of environment, and things go real fast in rodeo,” White said of his first rodeo seven years ago. “Then I was pretty sad, but sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t have a good run. That’s part of the rodeo.”
White’s participation in the 2015 Roy Lee Watts Rodeo in Grenada, Miss. was actually his first time as a participant. The Memphis native has been a self-made cowboy since age 6. He saw his first rodeo, the Bill Pickett Invitational in Memphis, when he was 7 years old.
“I’m a first-generation cowboy,” White said. “What really got me into horses is that when I was 6, I had a birthday party. I always talked about horses and roping and rodeo, and my mom had a lady come out with a petting zoo.”
After that initial loss, White returned home determined. He continued practicing and is now a successful calf roper. Last year, White bought the petting zoo that his mom had hired for his sixth birthday.
The 17-year-old will be one of the participants in the inaugural Southern Soul Black Invitational Rodeo on May 21 in Tunica, Miss. The Ruthless Ryderz round-up club and a handful of others sponsor the event, which Black riders own and operate. This rodeo is the first the group will hold in the state, and it will feature numerous African American cowboys and cowgirls from across the country participating in western-style rodeo events.
“The Black rodeo is an opportunity for the Black cowgirl and cowboy to showcase their talents on a larger platform,” organizer Tyrone Brown Sr. said. “Historically, the Black cowboy and cowgirl have not had the opportunity to be visible enough to be recognized for their ability to ride their horses and the animals in the rodeo. These events (encourage) people to go in search of information regarding specific cowboys and cowgirls.”
Black Cowboys of History
African American cowboys are underrepresented in film and books, Brown said, but historians estimate that one in four cowboys were Black. An article in Smithsonian Magazine described Black cowboys as a needed commodity in Texas. During the Civil War, many white Texans enlisted to fight, and cattle ranchers and cotton farmers primarily settled the state.
With ranchers gone to war, the responsibility of caring for the cattle fell to the slaves. These men learned valuable skills that became a source of income post-war when ranchers hired the men as cowhands. As the price of beef drove ranchers to sell, they hired Black cowboys to move heards north.
The invention of the railroad made these jobs more obsolete. Building on the popularity of cowboys, Wild West shows and rodeos arose. In fact, William “Bill” Pickett is known for inventing the technique of bulldogging, the skill of grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground. The event grew into what is now known as steer wrestling.
Pickett became synonymous with successful rodeos traveling to Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Oklahoma to perform, and he went on to become the first Black cowboy movie star.
‘Preserving the Black Rodeo’
Tyrone Brown Sr. was first introduced to the rodeo in his hometown of Okmulgee, Okla. The town is the site of the Roy LeBlanc Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo, the oldest continuously held Black rodeo in the U.S.
“My interest grew more because my hometown hosted the largest Black rodeo in the nation, and it was a spectacle. It was amazing,” Brown said. “Now a lot of (rodeos like that one) are being lost, and I just wanted to try and do my part in preserving the Black cowboy and the Black rodeo. There is so much hidden about the Black cowboy and cowgirl.”
Now, Brown serves as president of the Ruthless Ryderz round-up club. The group, founded in 2018, includes cowboys and cowgirls from Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. Members range in age from 9 months to 77 years old and work in various occupations such as law, education, medicine and music. The infant and toddler members sometimes ride horses with their parents during opening ceremonies, and children as young as 2 years old participate in mutton-busting events.
Members compete in rodeo competitions and participate in community-service activities. White and Dulaa, the latter of whom will perform at the event, are both members. Brown has hosted rodeos for the last five years and chose Tunica to bring the entertainment closer to his Memphis home.
“I was looking, and I found the Paul Barrett Arena in Tunica, Mississippi. I went there, and I just loved everything about the venue,” Brown said. “It was the right place and right time because Tunica is trying to do some things, and they want some things to come back. The rodeo was one of the things they wanted to do, and they wanted to do something big.”
A Dozen Invitational Events, Parade
At the Southern Soul Black Invitational Rodeo, competing cowboys and cowgirls will participate in a timed trial the morning of the competition on May 21. Qualifiers will then move on to the long show beginning at 7 p.m. The show will feature 12 events including calf-roping, bull-riding, barrel-racing, steer-wrestling, ladies barrel-racing, bronc-riding, mutton-busting and the pony express.
“(The pony express) is probably the hottest event,” Brown said. “It’s something that’s not well-known in this area. It’s an event that has eight individuals per team, and it’s like a track meet on horses. They go around four barrels then pass the baton to the next man. They continue to do that until the last man, which is called the ‘drop man drops it in the barrel.’ It’s really exciting.”
Organizers have also arranged a parade at 3 p.m. through downtown Tunica featuring horses, wagons, drill teams and community leaders. Brown said the parade is important because it builds excitement and a sense of community.
“The parade is the extension of the rodeo where the people in the community can see. It’s a welcoming greeting event,” he said. “That’s where I think they get hyped and excited about wanting to come and see the rodeo.”
‘Kruntry’ Musician’s ‘Dream Come True’
Dulaa, the featured music artist for the show, refers to his eclectic style as “Kruntry” music. He believes that his sound is perfectly suited for the rodeo scene.
“The style of music that I do fit to fit that rodeo scene,” Dulaa said. “You take South Texas and you take Durant, Mississippi, and add truck-driving and sitting on milk crates while listening to the blues. (It’s) the essence of country living and the heritage of the Black cowboys that I’ve been around.”
Dulaa has been involved in the music industry for more than 20 years. He started primarily as a producer for trail-ride artists, helping create songs such as “Three Up One Down” and “Break Out the Big Guns,” but for the past 10 years he has worked on recording and performing his own music. So far, he has released eight albums, including his May 6, 2022, release, “Black Molasses.” This week’s event will be the artist’s first opportunity to perform at a rodeo.
“It’s been a long dream of mine to get in a rodeo to do my thing,” he said. “I’m just really excited about this opportunity. It’s a dream come true (to perform) at the Black rodeo. I’ve always wanted to do it. To someone else, it may not be that major, but to me it’s a dream come true.”
Brown said the rodeo will spotlight many historical rodeo aspects and figures, including one of the nation’s first Black rodeo announcers, Marcous Friday, and two of its first Black judges, Bobby Foster and Kerry Burks. He hopes that the show not only entertains guests but also piques their curiosity about the rodeo and the history of the western frontier.
“If I can inspire other kids and individuals to just go in search of information regarding the Black cowboys and cowgirls, I hope that they do. Then they may decide to get involved,” Brown said. “That’s exactly what my goal and intentions are. We just want to keep it alive. I don’t want it to die. I want to do my part and make sure it is not something that’s just swept under the rug or forgotten.”
The Southern Soul Invitational Rodeo will be held May 21, 2022, at the Tunica Arena and Expo Center (3873 Highway 61, Tunica). Doors open at 6 p.m. Ticket prices start at $25 and can be purchased through Eventbrite.