Everything was standard rodeo—mostly. At the 35th annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, held in Oakland in mid-July, there was bull-riding, barrel racing, and steer roping, with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” playing five or six times throughout the day. But where most rodeos open the show with a grandiose display of patriotism—you know, a convocation of bald eagles flying across the sky with fireworks exploding and at least one little boy, cowboy hat to his heart, shedding a single tear—the BPIR did something different.
For the event’s 35th anniversary, as it’s done every year before that, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo opted for a display devoid of eagles, fireworks, and crying children. Instead, promptly at 2:30 in the afternoon, Stephanie Haynes, the winningest cowgirl in BPIR history, rode down the highest hill of Alameda County’s Rowell Ranch carrying the American flag. Every year Haynes, dressed in bedazzled chaps and denim to match, gallops into the center arena on horseback to Ray Charles’s rendition of “America the Beautiful,” followed by a younger cowboy or cowgirl—this year Raemia Clemons had the honor—with another flag in tow: David Hammons's iconic African American flag, which the artist famously flew at a Swedish art show entitled “Black USA” in 1990. Once they made it into the arena, the black national anthem played on the loudspeaker, and everybody stood. This is the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo: the largest and longest-running touring rodeo celebrating black cowboys and cowgirls and their contributions to the American west.
In the 1800s, African Americans made up 25% percent of American cowboys, but didn’t quite make it into the Hollywood Western films, or even into the history books. The BPIR, which travels around the country, helps to address that erasure from history. Oakland, in particular, is a special stop: for more than 45 years, organizations like the Oakland Black Cowboy Association and local riding clubs like the Wiltown Riders have been telling the stories of these forgotten cowboys and passing down the traditions generation to generation. Lu Vason, the rodeo’s founder, was raised in the Bay Area, and considered Oakland, with its commitment to keeping black cowboy traditions alive, special to the rodeo. And so, every year, you can find the Oakland-area riders in the parking lot, with their RVs parked and fish frying, pulling tricks on top of their horses, and giving free horseback rides to children and rodeogoers alike, all while playing what seems to be another national anthem: "California Love,” by 2Pac & Dr. Dre.
Even as Old West inspiration shows up increasingly often on high fashion runways, it’s easy to forget this chapter of cowboy history. So we went out to the Wild West of Oakland to shoot these pioneers of modern cowboy culture in the season’s best Western-inspired fashions. We may have brought the clothes, but the cowboys brought the style.
Teaspoon Mitchell, 41, Rodeo Bull Fighter
“I got on my first bull when I was 11 years old. You gotta respect the bulls: if you scared of them you can’t get on. You gotta respect it as much as you respect anything else. It’s like the horse, if you get on the horseback, he can feel your little buttcheeks tremblin’ if you're scared. One of my proudest moments was back in 1994. I got invited to a national invitational and I was the only black cowboy. That helped me realize that I wanted to do it for real.”
Left: Bobby Young, 64, Photographer
Bobby Young is a former photographer for the Bill Pickett Rodeo. He’s since retired from rodeo photography and now is a blues musician and lead singer/guitarist of the Bobby Young Project. He also made all the leather accessories he’s wearing. “I used to be the photographer for the rodeo. I was always right in the arena, but me and bulls? Nooo.”
Right: Tank Adams, 29, Rough Stock Rider
Tank now competes in larger national rodeo circuits, but comes back to pay dues at the BPIR, where he started.
Raemia Clemons, 21, Barrel Racer
“I’ve been riding all my life, but I just started rodeoing and competing last year. My goal is to be a barrel horse trainer, but I want to be top-notch. I want my horses to be running at the NFR [National Finals Rodeo]. I might not be competing but I trained that horse that is, and winning all the money.”
Left: Dequan Laskey, 18, Steerwrestler
“I’ve been riding all my life, I learned from my dad and stuff and just got tired of watching them. There were a lot of influences for me, too. It’s like a village. I call a lot of them my uncles, my rodeo uncles.”
Right: Joseph Alexander Matthew aka “Dougger,” 66
“Hell yeah! I’m here, I’ll be here tomorrow! And Imma have a different look for you!”
Greg Bradley III, aka “G3,” 14
G3 is the third and youngest Greg Bradley. He attended the rodeo with his grandpa—G1—who’s one of the founding members of the Wiltown Riders and the founder of Black Cowboy Life magazine.
Aleeyah Roberts, 17, and Savannah Roberts, 12, Barrel Racers
“I started out teaching her, kind of being her matriarch, and now she spanks me every day," says Aleeyah. "I’d rather be beaten by my sister than anybody else. I’m always like ‘That’s my girl!’ whenever she wins.”
Carolyn Carter, 61, BPIR Media/Performance Manager
Before she started working with the media for the rodeo Carolyn was the rodeo’s General Manager.
Rick Reddick, 28, Rough Stock Rider
“The word 'cowboy' came from black people. A lot of people would be surprised about it, but there’s a large group of us. Just out in California alone, there's over 500-600 of us, all spread out through California. My dad’s been bringing me out here since I was born. He’s a Mississippi cowboy, it’s in his bloodline.”
Denard Hunt, 35, Steerwrestler
“Horses have been in my family for a long time. We’ve always had them. It was more of a therapeutic thing. We all took care of them as a family. I went to an agricultural school and they had a rodeo team, but as an African-American, I didn’t even know there was such a thing—I was there on an athletic scholarship. I learned more about the rodeo, and the people on the team allowed me to watch, and they started letting me try it out. Every horse I’ve competed on I’ve trained. I taught them everything. Most guys spend thousands of dollars on trained horses, I took the time to put in the work to get them ready to compete. Some horses you just have that connection with, that bond with, and you can make magic. When you get that connection with one it’s unexplainable.”
Left: Valeria Howard Cunningham, 65, BPIR President
“Everybody is like family. We’ve been together for 35 years, we have our fights like brothers and sisters and children and parents, but everybody protects each other. We feel it's important to tell the story. Blacks helped develop the West, Black cowboys and cowgirls do exist, they have their own stories to share with society. They have ranches, they have horses, they have skills to participate in the rodeo, and the question is: if we don’t tell that story, who will? We want to highlight the children because that's our future. It’s important for them to participate and learn so that heritage can continue.”
Right: Alvin Warren, 49, Calf Roper
Jeff Douvel, 71, Northern California Coordinator
"I work with a lot of the riding clubs: one of my jobs was to tie in with the local riding clubs and make us unified, so we can represent the African American horseman or the equine world. There’s a lot of history here, a lot of forgotten history, history that never got told. A lot of the riders that you saw this weekend, they’ve been around for a long time but there was just nowhere to tell their story until Lu Vason built this platform."
Styling: Alexander-Julian Gibbson Fashion Assistants: Chelsea Lee, Ariadne Ray Photo Assistant: Patrick Aguilar
Originally Appeared on GQ