Cowboy hat. Check. Cowboy boots. Check. Rhinestone belt with large horse medallion. Check. Horse and saddle. Check.
At midday yesterday, between industrial buildings and houses on 18th Street and Adeline Street in downtown Oakland, were cowboys. In the city atmosphere of downtown, on Saturday, members of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association (OBCA) celebrated their history with the community.
Men and women pulled their horses out of their trailers, fixed their sons’ and daughters’ cowboy hats and made their way to the starting point of the parade. There was no hay or dirt, and the only grass was from DeFremery Park, where other cowboys and cowgirls were setting up the festival. With the city skyline and tall buildings in the foreground, black cowboys just didn’t seem to fit into the Oakland atmosphere.
“We just happen to be black, but we’re Americans, and we played an important part in the movement of the west, for this country,” said Wilbert McAllister, 68, president of the OBCA. “I think it’s important for the kids to understand you are a part of history.”
Since 1975, the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, a nonprofit that teaches the public about African-Americans’ contributions to the Old West, has sponsored a parade to show the community something of their organization. The history of the black cowboys is not well known, but according to some historians, African-Americans made up one-fourth of the cowboys in the West after the Civil War. The Oakland organization consists of 43 members, who are different ages and have different family history of different backgrounds. But the love of being on a horse is the same to all of them.
Although the city of Oakland has usually funded the parade in previous years, budget cuts this year forced the OBCA to fund the entire parade and festival, at a cost of $1,200. The city also could not fund enough police officers to patrol the blocked-off streets of the parade. So the OBCA had to downsize. The parade, which is every first Saturday of October, usually lopes from 14th Street to Broadway, but this year the parade marched around just the perimeter of the park. “We’ve been begging,” McAllister said. “We are in a terrible financial situation.”
Titus Taylor, 50, from Oakland, is a police evidence technician and volunteered at the parade, although he is not a member of the OBCA. Taylor said there are not enough police officers to help with the parade and funding cannot pull police officers off their beat in another area to help with the parade.
In 2002, Taylor was working as a parole officer and was assigned to be on-duty at the parade, but once he arrived he was just excited to be part of it. “The parade brought the excitement back — that wonder — this is history,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to be a part of this next year?’”
Taylor, dressed in a blue uniform with a long silver sword hanging from his left side, a yellow handkerchief tied around his neck and a cowboy hat, has now participated in the OBCA parade for six years. Every year he has dressed up as a buffalo soldier, a name coined for an African-American regiment of the U.S. Army during the Civil War. “I would come even if I got paid,” he said.
There were hundreds of people who, like Taylor, had their boots shined, dusted off their hats, and brushed their horses’ hair because it was the first Saturday of October.
“I shine my horse, get a new saddle, and look forward to the turnout,” said Kennethan Baird, 24, from Oakland.
During the parade, members of the OBCA and others showed off their horses. One horse could walk sideways when its owner, a man with long dreads down his back underneath his cowboy hat, directed the horse. The largest horse in the show, named Hercules, had a flare of city lifestyle with a Louis Vuitton saddle. Another horse, which was white and had long white waved hair that covered its eyes, could dance. It tapped its hooves against the divider lines of the Oakland street.
“And that ain’t no weave, ya’ll,” McAllister said over the microphone during the horses’ routine. The crowd of hundreds of people on the sidewalk laughed. People in the crowd rushed to grab their cell phones to take pictures or record a video. Children looked excited just to see a live horse in front of them.
Other organizations, such as Brownie and Girl Scout troops, as well as an organization called the Red Hat Society, which turns out to be just what it sounds like, sported cowgirl attire and marched in the parade. A group of women performed line dancing to Zydeco, the fast-tempo Cajun music that originated in Louisiana among rural Creole African-Americans. The crowd grew larger and larger as paraders made their second and third trips around the park.
Baird, who is an independent contractor, has been a member of the OBCA for a year and half and said he decided to join because in some way cowboying is in his blood. He grew up on a farm in Mobile, Alabama, he said, but did not start riding a horse until four years ago. He said although some people are unenthusiastic about seeing a black cowboy (like the girlfriend he had to dump because she did not like him wearing his cowboy hat), it’s what makes him happy. “I’d rather have my hat and belt, than wear skinny jeans hanging off my butt,” he said. “People don’t know their history. But I’m repeating mine.”
Deborah Emery, 54, of Oakland, has been part of the parade since the beginning. Her father, Booker Emery, became good friends with Lonnie Scoggins, the first Black Cowboy of Oakland, who was an expert horseman and roper during the mid-1970s. The two had a vision, she said: African-American men and women, riding horses like in the Old West, but in Oakland. “When I was a little girl I had a stick pony and a holster on,” Emery said. “I always wanted to be a cowgirl. It’s an honor.”
Although images of black cowboys in popular culture are rarely seen, the history of African Americans in the cowboy life dates back to slavery, McAllister said. A cowboy would drive the herds of cattle over hundreds of miles. McAllister said slave men were always called “boys,” and the “boys” who drove the cattle were called cowboys. “The media portrays cowboys in a completely different way,” he said. “But we were there.”
Mary Eisenhart, 61, of Oakland, said she did not know the history of black cowboys until she came to a parade three years ago. “It’s a cultural event and it’s a part of history that doesn’t get noticed,” she said. Eisenhart, who is a writer and web designer, said she loves being in an environment where there are cowboys and horses, especially in Oakland, an unexpected place. “So much is going on in Oakland that you never hear about, and this is a classic example,” she said. “I’m kicking myself for the twenty years I didn’t go.”