Oakland’s Black Cowboys Parade celebrates African Americans’ role in the West
on October 6, 2011
Fake spurs glinted in the sunlight as horse-riders trotted by a mass of people in cowboy hats. The animals were quiet; necks arched, heads slightly bent, coats glistening, they carried the riders straddling them through what would, to an untrained animal, be a tumultuous scene. Cars slowly made their way down the road. Cheerleaders hooted and waved pom-poms. School bands marched to the thunderous beats of drums. This was the 37th Black Cowboy Parade held in Oakland, and as usual, it was a big one.
The parade is held every year by the Oakland Black Cowboys Association, which has been involved in teaching people about the role of African Americans in settling the West for almost four decades.
“We were left out of the history books,” said Assocation president Wilbert McAlister. “It’s important to let [kids] know about their past.” For 70-year-old McAlister, this knowledge of black history did not come until he was an adult. “When I was a little bitty boy shining shoes, I didn’t know there were black cowboys,” he said. “I used to go to movies, and I thought they were just Caucasians. It wasn’t until I left the army that I found out the black cowboys had a major role in settling the West.”
Several years later, he found out about the Oakland Black Cowboy Association and their mission, and decided to join immediately. As a long time member of the organization, McAlister has witnessed and organized dozens of parades.
Spread out among the crowd for the second year in a row were members of Shadow of the Knight, an African American motorcycle club from Oakland, who had volunteered to provide security for the event when city police stepped back last year because of budget cuts. These budget cuts had also prompted the association to move the parade from downtown Oakland to West Oakland this year; they simply could not afford to pay for the police required to cordon off the busier downtown streets.
The parade, while a celebration of the Western lifestyle, also featured car and motorcycle enthusiasts and their vehicles. A stunningly long line of buffed-up sports cars drove slowly around the parade route, music blaring, engines revving to appreciative cheers from the crowd. They were followed by a group of horsemen, as leather-clad heavy bikers brought up the rear.
The parade was followed by a festival, and a small exhibition of pictures and old artifacts was set up inside the park. The grainy, black and white images showed African Americans in cowboy attire in a variety of settings. Captions accompanying the photos provided brief histories and biographies.
“We love working in the community, bringing our children in,” said McAlister. “But I must interject and say, it ain’t just black cowboys, we have all kinds of people coming in. There’s a diversity of people here.” And sure enough, the parade included local social work groups, and traditional Native American dances.
This year a member of OBCA, Albert Harris, approached James Pickens Jr. to act as celebrity Grand Marshall for the event. Pickens, who is best known for his role as Chief Webber on Grey’s Anatomy, says he has long been a fan of the Western lifestyle.
“A lot of [African American] history has been omitted, for obvious reasons,” said Pickens. “And I think what the OBCA is doing is making folks aware of how important our contribution was to the opening of the West. One third of all the cowboys who did the major cattle drives were African American.”
The OBCA also holds community meetings during the year, and tries to educate the young by going to schools and recreational facilities and giving presentations there. Rocky, one of the associations’ founding members, said “We also go to senior centers. We try to get the young and the old involved.”
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