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Tucked away for 40 years, these Juneteenth rodeo photos ride once more

A photo from Sarah Bird's new book, “Juneteenth Rodeo."
Sarah Bird
A photo from Sarah Bird's new book, “Juneteenth Rodeo."

The myth of the cowboy was grown deep in the heart of Texas, but for years so was the erroneous mainstream image of what a “real” cowboy looked like – one that often excluded women, queer people, Mexican-American vaqueros and, of course, Black cowboys.

In the rodeo world of the 1970s, Black cowboys tested their skill and competed at Black rodeos. And in the new book “Juneteenth Rodeo,” photos and moments from those rodeos here in Texas are coming to light after being packed away for decades.

Writer and photographer Sarah Bird spoke with Texas Standard about reconnecting with the photos, getting the afterward written by “Black Rodeo in the Texas Gulf Coast Region” author Demetrius Pearson, and the excitement of connecting the names and stories with the faces.

This transcript has been edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: These images, as I understand it, were taken by you decades ago. Were they just packed away under your bed?

University of Texas Press

Sarah Bird: Precisely. No – so, I just fell in love with Black rodeos in the late 70s and went to as many as I could in these tiny little rural outposts – Plum, Egypt. And I would bring it back to Austin; as you said, there was not a lot of awareness of Black cowboys at that point. So, you know, my friends and fellow graduate students would go, “I didn’t know there were Black cowboys.” And, as you know, I mean, that’s the sign you’ve got a story. This was an untold story. These were the unseen images.

And I was on fire about getting a book published to share with the world this remarkable what apparently was news. And at that point, no interest in Black cowboys. Unlike today, there is tremendous resurgence of interest. So I was told, no, no, and hell no. Multiple rejections.

So I packed them away. You know, my heart was broken; my bank account was broken. This was this was back in the days when, as you recall, photography was both laborious and expensive. And I just ran out of money, so I put them away. There they might have stayed forever and ever had it not been for a worldwide pandemic.

And then a rediscovery of some of these photos. Tell us a little bit about the images that you captured. You called them renegade rodeos. And along with the Juneteenth rodeo, there were many that you attended at the time that wouldn’t fit the definition of typical rodeo, as many people think of it. 

As a newcomer to Texas, I fell in love with all the state’s oddities, and one being rodeos – but not mainstream rodeos, you know, not professional rodeos, which I found not too interesting, but the offbeat rodeos like I photographed. And charreada is not necessarily rodeos, but gorgeous spectacles. Then Native American rodeos, kids rodeos, old timers rodeos, gay rodeos, girls rodeos, as they were called then, prison and police rodeos.

So I was just fascinated by the worlds that sprang up around the rodeo arena. That’s what I was most interested in photographing. And through them, I found what I ultimately came to think of as the best of them all, which was the Black rodeos.

Sarah Bird

Sarah, I think a lot of folks think of you as more writer perhaps than photographer. This book seems very different from a lot of your past work. For those who maybe aren’t familiar with your portfolio, tell us a little bit about your journey in journalism and how this compares with the rest of your of your work. 

You know, you’re the first person to have asked me that. It’s night and day. Frankly, I’ve really enjoyed working with the visual instead of the verbal, just as a change of pace. I mean, I’ve put in 50 years of typing – my hands are tired! So it was just a lot of fun to look at these essentially completed work, which I was editing. And, you know, I mean, how much easier that is to just mess around with something that is already there.

In writing novels, there’s always this confidence problem: “Is this worth anything? Is this an idea worth pursuing? Is this an idea worth spending three years of my life on?”

But with these photos, from the first moment I pulled them out from under the bed after over 40 years and and saw them, I mean, there was just no doubt in my mind that this was a piece of history that had to be returned to the people who had created it.

Sarah Bird

In radio, we often like to say that the pictures are better, but one of the challenges here is trying to communicate what it was that you saw through the lens and was ultimately printed onto that negative and the paper stock. When you look at these pictures today, what do you see? 

What I see is joy. I just see this kind of vibrance. And as I mentioned, I’d been on the trail; I’d been to lots and lots of rodeos. And from the first instant I set foot in a Black rodeo, they electrified me. They were so much more alive, so much more vibrant, and so much more damn fun. And I feel like I captured that.

And not to say that there wasn’t intense and very superb competition, but everyone had a good time and it was a celebration of each other. It was a celebration of them being together and a celebration of what at that point was their their livelihood. By and large, the competitors came from rural backgrounds. You know, they probably were riding horses that they had broken and, you know, they knew how to rope and brand and dope and dehorn steers.

So it was a celebration of them and their world and their ability to survive and ultimately have a better time than anybody else.

» MORE: Trail riders preserve cowboy traditions, Black heritage at Houston Rodeo

There’s an afterword by another author who has a special connection to Black rodeos. Can you tell us who he is? 

Demetrius Pearson, he’s a professor at the University of Houston, and he has written specifically about – which was astonishing to me when I discovered his monogram – what is called the soul circuit. This is essentially the rodeos that I photographed between about a 150-mile radius of Houston in these very, very tiny towns: Egypt, Plum, El Campo.

And he had written about, you know, went back and did a lot of research on these rodeos. He was the ideal person to write the afterword.

Sarah Bird

What are you hoping to do with these pictures and in the book? What is it that you are trying to accomplish, getting these pictures out there? 

I feel it’s my duty to return them to the communities that created this unbelievable, unforgettable world. And hopefully the participants, but maybe their families or their children, their grandchildren, will be able to see what cool cowboys and cowgirls their grandfathers and grandmothers were, and aunts and uncles.

I made it a real effort – it was really important to me to name as many of my subjects as I could. And so before printing, I posted as many photographs as I could on social media. And to my astonishment, I heard back from sons and daughters of some of the subjects.

A fellow named Randy McCullough, who was in a lot of the photographs, was my major informant. Many times I only knew nicknames because that was how it was in Black rodeo. And then I shared the photos with Larry Callies at the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, Texas. And he, to my utter delight, informed me that I essentially had at least three champions – photographs of three or four champions.

And that was completely thrilling to know I had the great Myrtis Dightman, who was called the Jackie Robinson of Black Rodeo. He’s in several of my photographs, not as a competitor, but to the extend fellowship to his fellow riders and competitors, and share wisdom and tactics and help them rosin up their ribbons.

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Kristen Cabrera