The Forgotten History of the Black American Cowboy

For decades, the cowboy has occupied a storied place in Americana—but the image in popular narratives excluded cowboys of color. This year the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Grammy-winning musician Dom Flemons sought to change that. At the event, held in Nevada earlier this winter, the theme was the same as Flemons's 2018 album: black cowboys.

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Photo: Rory Doyle

From across the West and beyond, cowboys and cowgirls have trekked to Elko, Nevada, each winter for the past 36 years to attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual pilgrimage for ranchers and wranglers who are also poets, storytellers, and musicians. This year the gathering had a special theme: the often overlooked history of African American cowboys, whose legacies were honored through lectures, performances, exhibitions, and films.

Arguably, there’s no better performer to address this history than Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Dom Flemons, whose album Black Cowboys was released in 2018. The 18-track record features thematic lyrics performed over the harmonies and percussions of turn-of-the-century western folk music.

“It really struck me, as I was researching for this album, that one in four cowboys were African American in the golden age of the cattle era,” said Flemons, referring to later parts of the 19th century, when settlers first brought livestock to the West. “It’s a certain part of American history that is not discussed in general.”

Flemons took to the stage multiple times during this year’s poetry gathering to play songs from the album. He and his wife, Vania Kinard, also curated a multidimensional exhibit on African American cowboy history for the Western Folklife Center in Elko. It featured numerous black-cowboy artifacts, historical documents, art, and photographs and was aptly titled “I’m Gonna Take My Horse…,” a reference to lyrics from the runaway hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus. 

“One of the most interesting things I’ve found in presenting African American western history has been the way that I’ve seen manifestations of that history come back in modern popular culture,” said Flemons, referencing works by Solange Knowles and Nipsey Hussle, in addition to Lil Nas X. “They all confirmed my idea that this is a history the world should know.”

“The gathering was built to be a bridge between the folkloric cowboy in the history books and the modern ranching culture that is still living to this day,” he continued. “To open it up to historical African American cowboys is right in line with the gathering’s mission. It’s been beautiful to see it all come together.”

Photo: Rory Doyle

Flemons performing in front of a sold-out crowd of around 900 people at the Elko Convention Center. He’s gained a faithful following by playing at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering for four years in a row.

Photo: Rory Doyle

Flemons waiting to take the stage alongside fellow performers and poets.

Photo: Rory Doyle

Warming up backstage before performing at the Western Folklife Center’s G Three Bar Theater at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Flemons said the community of annual attendees has been incredibly supportive of his 2018 album Black Cowboys.

Flemons makes his way from an afternoon session at the Western Folklife Center to a sound check before his show at the convention center.

Poetry-gathering attendees dance to the zydeco sounds of Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie. The band, from southwest Louisiana, draws from its Creole history deep in the bayou.

Photo: Rory Doyle

“In terms of sharing black-cowboy history, from the very beginning, I’ve been met with so much enthusiasm from the people of Elko,” said Flemons. Although the world has taken a while to catch up on this history, he believes this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering marked a successful contemporary effort to spread a more diverse narrative about the West.

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