Inglewood locals learned about the roots of black cowboys and cowgirls on Friday, July 15.
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has hit the streets with its first traveling museum, making its final stop at Edward Vincent Jr. Park in Inglewood on Friday. The visit to Inglewood honored the rodeo’s founder, Lu Vason, who died in 2015, and celebrated the 38th anniversary of the “biggest show on dirt.”
The Inglewood museum visit only lasted a day, but the rodeo will also be putting on real shows in the City of Industry this weekend.
The Truck Trailer Museum houses memorabilia – some from Vason’s collection – from the 1980s through 2021. Each case is dedicated to a different era, filled with belt buckles, saddles, jackets and jeans, tickets and programs from shows from 1987, and even souvenirs from past shows such as Cookie jars and bottles of hot sauce.
Its walls are lined with photos of nearly 1,000 cowboys and cowgirls who have competed in the rodeo since its inception in 1984.
It was the museum’s third stop nationwide, said Jody Gilbert, artistic director, web developer, and office coordinator for the rodeo.
The moving history lesson began in Fort Worth, Texas in May — with another show there on June 16 — and then headed to Oakland last weekend, Gilbert said by phone Thursday. After Los Angeles, the museum will revisit Atlanta, Fort Worth in August and end in Washington, DC in September, where the rodeo finals will be held, he added.
The museum also highlights other Black West pioneers, such as Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, the first black woman to become a Star Route mail carrier in the United States, known for carrying two guns and fast firing to protect her protect cargo; Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi, who announced more than 3,000 arrests and became a police officer in Oklahoma when it became a state; and Nate Love, a cowboy with a special talent for riding or teaching horses.
District 1 Inglewood councilors George Dotson and District 2 councilor Alex Padilla sponsored free hot dogs, popcorn and drinks, a bouncy castle and games for children at Friday’s event, and a DJ playing oldies by artists like Smokey Robinson.
A few black-owned food trucks, including Mr. Fries Man, stopped by to sell treats as well. There was a raffle to win tickets to this weekend’s sold out rodeo shows at the City of Industry, pony rides for children, line dancing and a performance by Roc’co Tha Clown later in the day.
Margo Wade-Ladrew, the rodeo’s national development, sponsorship and California rodeo coordinator, helped bring the museum to its only Southern California stop in Inglewood during its first year, said District 1 liaison Gwen Goodman. Wade-Ladrew owns a shop in town and wanted to show his love for Inglewood.
According to an informational video at the museum, the Bill Pickett Invitational set a precedent for the Black Rodeo experience. In creating the first black traveling rodeo, Vason envisioned that it would be a means to strengthen the black community and dispel the myth that black cowboys and cowgirls did not exist as black contributions to the early West, according to the video, which was widely used erased from history.
Free blacks went west after the Civil War for better opportunities and were a large part of the early settlements, including ranch work.
Vason noticed a shortage of black riders at a Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming. Then in 1984 in Colorado he founded the all-black traveling showcase, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, named after the most famous black rodeo performer of all time.
“I felt it was unfair that we didn’t have black cowboys on this show,” Vason said in a video at the museum. “So I decided to dispel the myth by starting a Black Rodeo Company.”
Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was the first black cowboy to star in western films, notably 1921’s The Bull Dogger and The Crimson Skull, and he invented bull dogging, a method of controlling oxen that known today as “steer” is wrestling in the worldwide rodeo industry. His performance at the 1904 Cheyenne Frontier Days landed him a job at the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, where his “bulldogging” technique became a rodeo staple.
Pickett died after an 11-day coma after being kicked in the head by a wild bronc.
After Vason’s death, his then-wife Valeria Howard-Cunningham took over the reins in 2017 and became the first black woman to lead a touring rodeo organization. Last year, she partnered with the Professional Bull Riders organization and hosted a showdown event on June 16, 2021, the first time a black rodeo was nationally televised.
“It’s a whole new era of black women in rodeo,” Gilbert said of Howard-Cunningham hiring many other women to join her leadership team.
For his part, Dotson said it was “amazing” to have an event like this in Inglewood.
“Many of us never knew and would never know,” Dotson said, that blacks are cowboy pioneers. “It’s a dream come true for me because I wanted to be a cowboy until I learned how much work it is.”
His wife, Ida Dotson, reiterated that black history like this needs to be taught more prominently.
“I wish more of our kids could know where they came from and what happened when their parents and grandparents were alive,” she said, “so they know how they’ve become today.”
The rodeo has landed in 23 states and 32 cities across the country and has a Bill Pickett Rodeo Foundation that awards scholarships so students can experience rodeo while learning the history of black cowboys and cowgirls — and their impact on the American West.