When we think about cowboys, images of the Wild West are prominent. White men on horses spending their time at saloons, getting into shootouts, catching bandits, saving a damsel in distress, and then riding off into the sunset. The only thing that is accurate about that image is the horse. There were men who rode horses and then there were cowboys. The cowboy of that time was a hard worker who looked after cattle and valued open space, nature, and animals; they also weren’t just white men.
Those who were members of the Fulani Tribe were herdsman who openly grazed animals on their land; same for others with ties to Ghana, Gambia and other African countries.
Black cowboys not only existed, but they had a large part in shaping the culture which goes further back into history than the migration to the west. Many of the slaves who arrived on the ports in South Carolina lived on open land in their home countries. Those who were members of the Fulani Tribe were herdsman who openly grazed animals on their land; same for others with ties to Ghana, Gambia and other African countries. Prior to their arrival, slave masters traditionally kept their animals in pens. The slaves with their knowledge of herding animals on foot shared their knowledge.
When the migration to the west began, it was a new frontier for settlers and a different kind of freedom for the former slaves and runaway slaves alike. Along the way, Black towns were founded, grounded and built on the cowboy skill set and value system. Townspeople learned to ride horses from Mexicans, as horses were revered and not ridden in their original culture.
Though the landscape of our country has changed, there are those who are still committed to upholding cowboy values and sharing the history of the culture with others.
Though the landscape of our country has changed, there are those who are still committed to upholding cowboy values and sharing the history of the culture with others. Mark and Sandra Myers, a married couple who have deep roots in Black cowboy culture, share the history and the legacy at their annual event: The Black Cowboy ‘Man or Myth’ African American Cultural Festival.
Mark was always intrigued by the life of a cowboy. He grew up on a farm owned by his family and vowed to one day have horses in his own backyard. When Mark and Sandra met and then married, Mark fulfilled his dream of having horses on the 5-acre property he owned with his wife. Sandra grew up on land where her great grandparents were slaves, and her parents worked as sharecroppers. When discussing her family history on the farm, Mrs. Myers notes “They never owned it. They worked on it and died on it.” That changed when the land was purchased by the Myers in 1991 and became their home and the location of the festival. They raise cattle and horses and grow hay on the property which also features a slave cabin where some of Sandra’s family was born and raised.
The Myers’ festival has fostered the expansion of the cowboy community
Started in 1996, the impetus of the festival came from the nearby children and families who live around their now 100-acre property. Their neighbors were not accustomed to seeing black people who owned and rode horses. “We began by teaching young men how to ride and hosting horse shows for the families of the young riders,” says Mrs. Myers. “Then we did a horse show as a fundraiser for our church,” she continues. Soon, they were bringing in cowboys from out of town to put on the show and the event grew from 50 people at the first show to 2,000 people who now either participate or enjoy the show and other festival activities each year.
At The Black Cowboy ‘Man or Myth’ African American Cultural Festival, visitors are treated to four days of history, education, and entertainment. Every year on the first weekend of May, cowboys and cowboy enthusiasts travel to the Myers’ farm in South Carolina, park their RVs, or set up camp and get ready to ride the trails, eat, dance, and celebrate the contributions that Black cowboys have made in this country.
Day one consists of agricultural workshops led by the USDA and self-reliance workshops where patrons learn the process of canning food for preservation. The core of the workshop is to teach how cowboys survived in their era, as well as to build skills for those who wish to be prepared to survive in case the luxuries we’ve grown accustomed are not as easily accessible in the future. There are also workshops such as soap making, which demonstrate how soap that was used for bathing and washing clothes was made with hog fat and grease. Throughout the festival, people dressed in outfits commonly worn in the cowboy era will be cooking up traditional food that was vital for the survival of the cowboys and has now become southern favorites such as chitterlings, stewed rooster, corn bread, collard greens, and sweet potato pies. The day ends with a fish fry and musical entertainment.
Wake up on day two to a cowboy breakfast. Guests fill up before heading out for two hours on the trails on horses or in one of the farm’s many wagons which can be reserved for non-riders. Others can stay on the farm and take tours, get riding lessons, and watch some of the many documentaries playing on screens throughout the property. Later on, everyone is encouraged to put on their dancing shoes and participate in a line dance class to prepare for the Western Dinner Dance. The dance includes a live band and a steak or roasted chicken dinner with enough fixins for non-meat eaters.
After a night of dancing, get ready to cheer on cowboys from all over the country as they compete in categories such as horsemanship, barrel racing, walking horse competitions, and more. Then grab a seat on a hayride or listen to the jazz, blues, and gospel sounds echoing throughout the farm before going to the Motown Jam Show, featuring performers singing tunes by The Temptations, The Supremes and other artists from the Motown era.
On Sunday, the final day, visitors are invited to fellowship with a church service and brunch.
The Myers’ festival has fostered the expansion of the cowboy community, with cowboy clubs now popping up all over the Carolinas. Their commitment to this lifestyle and their willingness to open their home to the community preserves the history and adds a new layer to the American west narrative. “You can feel the ancestors’ spirits and the serenity here,” according to Mrs. Myers. “You feel at home when you’re here,” she adds.
Visit the festival this Spring from May 4th through the 7th. For more information visit www.blackcowboyfestival.net