Myrtis Dightman Wanted to Prove to the World That Black People Could Ride Bulls

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Photo credit: Greg Noire
Photo credit: Greg Noire


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Photo credit: Greg Noire
Photo credit: Greg Noire

Interview by Kristian Rhim/
Photograph by
Greg Noire

Nicknamed “The Jackie Robinson of Rodeo” in 1967 when he earned top ranking in the sport, Dightman was the first Black bull rider with a shot at the world championship buckle.

Kristian Rhim: You were around 11-years-old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. What did seeing a Black man play in Major League Baseball mean to you?

Myrtis Dightman: It meant a whole lot. A lot of time, you know, they say the “Blacks can’t do that.” Like me riding bulls. Back in that day there was no Blacks riding bulls. They thought all you could do was pick cotton and stuff like that, but I didn’t want to be no cotton picker. I wanted to prove to the world that Blacks could ride bulls, and that’s what I did.

KR: Bull riding isn’t a sport that you often hear encouraged in the Black community. How were you introduced to it?

MD: I worked on a ranch and I used go up to the rodeos and watch. When I started out I was a rodeo clown and I got to know a lot about bulls, you know, how to handle them. One day I said [to myself], Can I ride bulls? So I got on two or three, a couple of folks helped me out, and I got to riding pretty good.

KR: Did you ever feel isolated as a Black man in the sport?

MD: No, all the white guys I rode with, they took a liking to me. They took me home with them and people tried to help me. I wasn’t worried about what nobody had to say to me about nothing anyway—I worried about the bull.

KR: Is there ever a time you were nervous to ride or in your career?

MD: Well, a lot of times I come up a little hard luck, I needed some money and I didn’t think I was going to win. But I wanted the rodeo life and I just had to work through it. That’s what made me really just bear down and keep on going. The good Lord put everything in my favor. I had some good bulls, but there wasn’t one I would get on that I couldn’t ride, because I just figured I could do it.

Photo credit: Greg Noire
Photo credit: Greg Noire

KR: Is there a moment in your life when you really felt like everything you were doing was correct?

MD: You know, [I met] a couple of Black people who wanted to ride, but they really didn’t have the nerve. Charlie Sampson was still in school when he saw me [at a rodeo] one day and said, “Mr. Dightman, I sure want to ride bulls.” I says, “If you graduate, come back and I’ll help you.” When he was done with high school we traveled for about two years. We’d fly together, we’d catch the bus together, we’d drive together to whatever rodeo he wanted to go to, until I got him riding real good. It made me feel good just knowing somebody I was helping that could do something. [Editor’s note: In 1982, Charlie Sampson became the first African American to win the world championship in professional bull riding.]

KR: There’s a rich history of Black cowboy culture. How do you think bull riding could become more common in the Black community now?

MD: I really don’t know, because so many people are scared of bulls and the most important thing is don’t be scared of them—if you’re scared of them, you already messed up. And most of these city slickers don’t want to mess with bulls. They tell me “I can’t do it.” But how do you know? You can’t do it until you try.

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This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned


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