Share This Article

Black Cowboys of Texas, edited by Sara R. Massey, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2000, $29.95.

Cowboys and Texas go together like… well, Longhorns and Texas. The rise of the cowboy in the Lone Star State is a familiar story to most readers of Wild West Magazine and Western history books. Judging from early histories, one would think that all those Lone Star cowboys were light-skinned (at least until their skin darkened and became leathery from all that saddle time under the hot Texas sun). Most of us know better now. Any Old West aficionado realizes that some of those Texas cowboys were Mexicans and others were African Americans. According to several accounts, one-quarter of the men on the cattle drives of 1866-1895 were black. In the 1998 book In Search of the Racial Frontier, author Quintard Taylor, Jr., says that only about 4 percent of the Texas herders were black, while in the preface of Black Cowboys of Texas, editor Sara R. Massey argues that the 25 percent figure is “much more plausible.” But even if the percentage wasn’t that high, this is a much-needed book. By most anyone’s measure, black cowboys made important contributions to one of the most colorful eras in Texas and Western history. Riding the range or up the trail was not as romantic an occupation as it has often been portrayed in books and movies, but even when viewed through rose-colored glasses, 19th-century cowboying should always be seen in black and white.

Many people thought that a book about the lives of African-American cowboys of Texas was a good idea, and 27 of them wrote entries in this 361-page work. In the introduction, Alwyn Barr, a Texas Tech University history professor, gives a concise overview of how Texas ranching developed and how political and social changes affected the lives of black men and women. The book is then divided into three parts–“The Early Cowboys,” “Cowboys of the Cattle Drives” and “Twentieth-Century Cowboys.” Each of the 24 chapters offers the names and stories of actual black cowboys. That’s wonderful. Too often, interested readers have had to settle for statistics or general statements about black cowboys. Now they can meet or be reacquainted with the real-life fellows–and a few gals, too. Among the Westerners featured here are Robert Lemmons, a mustanger in the 1880s who told his story to folklorist J. Frank Dobie in 1931; Johanna July, a black Seminole woman who broke horses; Ben Kinchlow, a trail driver on the Chisholm Trail; Bose Ikard, a friend of cattle pioneer Charles Goodnight; James Kelly, a trail boss and gunman for the infamous Print Olive clan; and Charley Willis, a singing cowboy who made a drive to Cheyenne (Wyo.) in 1871.

The book includes more than 20 black-and-white illustrations, including photos of Lemmons, Kinchlow, Ikard and Kelly. Of course, the names of most of the early black cowboys–and white cowboys, for that matter–are now as lost as footprints on a washed-out trail. Still, it’s nice that these writers have taken the time to track some of the names through courthouse records, county histories (which rarely say much about anyone of African-American heritage) and interviews. “It was important to research these African American cowboys now,” Macey writes in the preface. True enough. But isn’t it a crying shame that more research and interviewing was not done 70 or 80 years ago, before the trails were so faded? So many good stories have been lost forever.

Z. Whitley