Cowboys of Color: Like the old West, rodeo brings diversity

Circle L 5 Riding Club performing during the Cowboys of Color rodeo performance

African-American cowboy Cleo Hearn began competing in an event called tie-down roping in a darker era in American history when rodeos could be pretty racially segregated.

He sometimes was shoved out of a rodeo’s main performance and asked to compete after the show because of his skin color.

However, Hearn says that never happened at the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo. He saddled up for the first time in the early 1960s and he’s always been slotted to rope during the same performances as cowboys and cowgirls of other races.

“I roped my first calf here in 1961,” said Hearn, 77, who lives in Lancaster. “There were rodeos that I roped in [during that era] that I had to rope after the rodeo. But never have I come to Fort Worth and not have been part of the main rodeo. I never felt that I was discriminated against in any way. The Fort Worth rodeo is in a class by itself. It makes people of all races want to come. They know they’re welcome.”

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Hearn, who worked in management for the Ford Motor Co. for more than 30 years, heads the Fort Worth Stock Show’s Cowboys of Color Rodeo, which mostly features African-American riders and is held on the Martin Luther King holiday. The rodeo is held in the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, the same venue that hosts the Stock Show’s prestigious 16-day Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo.

Other Western-minded cities such as Reno, Nevada, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, don’t emphasize rodeos focused on minority competitors like Fort Worth does.

“It sets them in a class by themselves,” Hearn said of Fort Worth.

In more recent years, the Fort Worth rodeo’s organizers have committed to offer patrons a diversity of rodeo experiences. Since the early 2000s, they’ve added specialty rodeos such as the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and fans have responded by filling the coliseum to the brim during the two-hour shows.

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“I think it’s very interesting that the first four events that sell out each year in advance of our opening day are the two nights of Ranch Rodeo, the Best of Mexico Celebración and the Cowboys of Color Rodeo,” said Ed Bass, the Stock Show Rodeo’s board chairman. “That says a lot about what we are in Fort Worth. We really value the heritage of all the people who are part of making this city where the West begins.”

Variety of rodeos

The Fort Worth Stock Show offers six different rodeos within its 23-day span. It begins with the Best of the West Ranch Rodeo (held this year on Jan. 13-14). After that comes the Best of Mexico Celebración, which caters to Hispanic contestants, and the Cowboys of Color Rodeo.

As bull riding has emerged as a popular and lucrative stand-alone sport, the Stock Show offers fans two nights of bovine busting. The show is called Bulls Night Out and is part of the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls tour.

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The concept of an all-star rodeo has also become a big hit with fans, and the Stock Show is offering a competition called the Fort Worth Super Shootout, which features credentialed competitors pitted against livestock, all of whom appeared at the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The cowboys and cowgirls vie for a total purse of $100,000 during an intense two-hour performance.

The Shootout rodeo, which was added three years ago, features the champions of high-profile pro rodeos such as Fort Worth, Houston, San Angelo and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to the typical individual single-event competition, each competitor is on a team representing the rodeo that he or she won. A team award is given in addition to a $10,000 check for the winner of each single event.

The main part of the Stock Show’s rodeo line-up is its traditional Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/Women’s Professional Rodeo Association show. It’s called The World’s Original Indoor Rodeo because the Fort Worth Stock Show has the bragging rights for conducting a rodeo in an indoor venue in 1918 – inside the Cowtown Coliseum in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

The 2017 edition begins Jan. 20 and runs through Feb. 4. It consists of 29 performances, more than any other PRCA/WPRA show. It concludes with a final round on Feb. 4 featuring the top 12 riders in each event from 28 preliminary, qualifying performances.

In 2008, Fort Worth’s PRCA Rodeo was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs. It is one of the top rodeos held during the PRCA’s regular season. A winner in a single event in Fort Worth might earn $10,000 to $15,000. That’s a big hit considering that it might take $55,000 to $80,000 in regular season earnings to secure a berth in the National Finals in Las Vegas, depending on the event. The National Finals features the top 15 riders in each event, based on prize money won during the season, and it’s traditionally the sport’s equivalent of the Super Bowl.

A history lesson

The Fort Worth Stock Show opens with the Ranch Rodeo, which reflects the sport’s beginnings in the Old West in the late 1800s when cowboys from local ranches held riding and roping contests that reflected their everyday work. The Stock Show concludes with the final round of the PRCA rodeo, which reflects how rodeo has evolved into an athletic competition in which cowboys train and compete as their livelihood.

Bass said the Ranch Rodeo is a fantastic way to kick off the Fort Worth Rodeo. He also said the six rodeos represent and illustrate the evolution of the sport.

“In Fort Worth, we’re a lot about tradition,” Bass said. “We value our Western heritage and we honor and practice it. So, starting off with the tradition of ranching, the roots of rodeo itself, having real ranch cowboys out there in the arena competing with events that they do day in and day out on their ranches [such as stock sorting, ranch vet and bronc riding] says something about who we are here in Fort Worth. Now, the PRCA rodeo is extremely important in that we have one of the premier rodeos in this country. We’ll have over 1,200 contestants competing for a purse in excess of $700,000 and that’s important, too, in what we do, but I think our heritage is where we begin.

“But we also have the Best of Mexico Celebración. Incorporated in that show are two things that are essential to rodeo. One of them is the demonstrations of some of the earliest techniques on horseback, of ropes and cattle. The other one is the color and spectacle of rodeo. So, our going from the Ranch Rodeo to the Best of Mexico and the PRCA rodeo is a historic sequence.”

Bob Tallman, the Stock Show Rodeo’s longtime announcer, said the Best of Mexico and Cowboys of Color rodeos are reminders of the critical roles that black and Hispanic cowboys played in the settling of the West and early days of ranching and cattle drives.

“Long before physical rodeo ever took place, there was a rodeo every day on a cattle drive,” Tallman said. “Somebody had to rope something and it was wild. Somebody had to ride a wild bucking horse.”

Tallman said a large percentage of those who worked on cattle drives and ranches were minorities.

“I promote the fact that [without] Mexican cowboys and black cowboys, they would not have had trail drives to come out of Mexico and through Texas and New Mexico to get to railheads in Kansas City,” Tallman said. “Those two breeds of men and women were the toughest in the world. They would ride anything with hair on it to get their paycheck for the day. They lived through tornados, hurricanes and 110 degree heat, and those were the original cowboys. So, having a Hispanic day and the Cowboys of Color Rodeo at the Stock Show is a pleasure and a treat to watch it all come down.”

Tallman said Bulls Night Out, the Super Shootout and the PRCA rodeo also include diverse riders. In recent years, Brazilian competitors have arrived on the North American rodeo scene and have become high-profile competitors.

For example, roper Junior Nogueira, who lives in Burleson, became the first Brazilian to snare a PRCA title last year, clinching the PRCA’s 2016 all-around buckle. He is entered the 2017 Stock Show PRCA rodeo.

“When you put all of this together, and you take all of the great black athletes we’ve had, the great Hispanic athletes that we have had and still have, and the Brazilians, and you mix and match all of this together, in the two-night bull riding, the Shootout Rodeo and then the 29 rodeos of the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo, you take that mesh all together, and bring it in here where you have a field of contestants competing for $700,000, is there something magic about that? No. It’s traditionally perfect,” Tallman said.

He praised the Fort Worth Stock Show for being a well-rounded Western extravaganza and called it “totally inclusive,”

“In the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anyone ever forgotten, deleted, held out, pushed back or shoved away,” Tallman said. “The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in its traditional state has held together all the people of the world for one form of Western valued entertainment.

“The Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo is determined — has been, is, and will be — even when we get in the new coliseum [in 2020], to make sure our rodeo is recognized as a Western fever in the month of January,” Tallman added. “That means people will want to come together regardless of thought patterns or anything and be part of a great success. The Stock Show breaths and oozes success.”

W.R. “Bob” Watt Jr., the former longtime president and general manager of the Stock Show, said the Fort Worth Rodeo historically has included members of different races and ethnicities.

“The Stock Show has been open to all races for years,” said Watt, 82, who is semiretired but has worked at the Stock Show in some capacity since 1960. “We’ve had colored folks participate in our horse shows, but what we have today is more of it. A few years ago, it was kind of limited.”

The Stock Show added the Ranch Rodeo in 2001. Since then, it’s added the Hispanic rodeo, the Cowboys of Color rodeo, the bull riding show and the Super Shootout.

Matt Brockman, the Fort Worth Stock Show’s publicity director, said the Stock Show makes conscious efforts to reach out to a wide variety of people.

“We recognize the diversity,” Brockman said. “While we pride ourselves in our Western heritage and the connection of the cattle industry to Fort Worth, at the same time we recognize that the Fort Worth area is very culturally diverse, so we try to respond to that.”