Oakland Black Cowboys parade celebrates 40 years
on October 8, 2014
The area around West Oakland’s DeFremery Park is what Gordon Brown refers to as the “deep hood”—crumbling roads, public housing that ranges from acceptable to decrepit, not a grocery store or ATM in sight. But Brown rose at 5 am on Saturday to get there. After breakfast, he washed and groomed his horse. He put on his chaps, which are embroidered with the words “Cowboy G” on one leg and “Cowboy Up” on the other, and attached his custom-made spurs to his boots. Then he made the drive to Oakland from Hayward, arriving by 9:30 AM to a park abuzz with preparations.
The warped stretch of 18th Street pavement that runs by the DeFremery Park backs up to a warehouse; it had been transformed that morning into a staging area filled with horse trailers, riders saddling Arabians and ponies, and the sharp smell of leather. In the small parking lot, the Kipp Bridge Charter step group, today decked out in matching green t-shirts and cowboy hats, practiced their moves, staccato verses drifting into the still-cool morning air. A cluster of stands sold fried chicken, handmade dolls in Raiders t-shirts, and antique prints of the Old West. It was the 40th annual Oakland Black Cowboys parade, and an early start was not going to keep Brown from taking part. Like almost everyone else at the park that morning, he is African American, and he was eager to celebrate a little-known part of black history.
Being a black cowboy is “hereditary,” says Andre Alporter, one of the organization’s most active members. He feels especially connected to the Buffalo soldiers, all-black army units employed during the Civil War to ease westward expansion. These men “built the roads, they put up all the poles for communications, they were the first park rangers at Yosemite and the big red woods,” Alporter says. “So it means a lot because it means that the parks and places that we enjoy the most were rangered and produced by some of our ancestors.”
In fact, Wilbert McAlister, the president of the Oakland Black Cowboys Association (which was founded in 1975 by Lonnie Scoggins, an ex-cowboy who rode the range in the southwest before moving to California), says the label itself is rooted in African-American presence in the old West. Noting that during much of American history, including slavery, black men were referred to as “boys,” he says: “Somebody had to watch the cows. They didn’t get the field boy, because his job was working the field. They didn’t get the houseboy because his job was working in the house. They got another black man to do it, and we did it so well what you think they called us?”
Despite the absence of people of color in the classic cowboy story, some historians say that as many as a third of cowboys during westward expansion were black— freedmen and sharecroppers making a new life during or after the Civil War. Alporter says he grew up watching the Lone Ranger with his family. His parents told him the character was based on Bass Reeves, a black lawman and former slave who worked in Texas and Oklahoma; that link has been reinforced recently by news accounts of old West studies. A few other black cowboys also managed to find their way into the public consciousness—most significantly Bill Pickett, inventor of the rodeo sport bulldogging (which involves leaping out of a horse’s saddle to grab a steer’s horns in each hand) and for whom the rodeo that stops in Oakland every year is named.
“That’s why I like doing it,” Brown says. “To show people, you know, we here, we out here. We do exist. It’s not all what you see on TV. We was part of it too, taming the West.” And as an afterthought: “The black cowboys got their own swagger. We got soul, we got hip-hop. And we are a dying breed, so we need all the support we can get.”
For Alporter, Brown, McAlister, and many other black cowboys, the annual parade is a chance to reclaim publicly a proud identity largely invisible in mainstream culture. “This is a story of keeping the ideology of a selected group of people in the forefront of the population,” says Alporter, “of being the greatest— who discovered everything, who invented everything, who thought of everything. But the deeper you dig in history, the blacker it gets.”
Scoggins, who reportedly had 14 children, worked as a cowboy in Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas before relocating to Oakland, co-founding the OBCA and serving as Grand Marshall in some of the first parades. If his age of Dust Bowl herding feels too removed from the present, one need only look to his graying son Lonnie Scoggins Jr., who drives a jeep in the parade every year and says of his father, “We’re proud to be carrying on his legacy.”
The History Room at the Oakland Public Library keeps a folder of press clippings from those early parades. In an article in the October 23, 1977 Oakland Tribune, marked in some past librarian’s careful script with the word “Negroes,” we learn that even at the parade’s third celebration, “Some 200 persons, in floats, bands, and marching units, strutted under sunny skies on 14th Street and Broadway.” Articles from later years note mounted contingents from the Oakland Police Department, riders from the Calgary Stampede and the Grand National Rodeo, and the presence of the Wells Fargo Wagon.
Today’s OBCA members are scattered throughout the Bay Area, coming from as far as Sacramento, and they work together to plan the annual parade and the organization’s many outreach events: a summer education program called Buckaroos, church and school visits, and pony rides around Oakland and San Francisco, which include a favorite pony named Michael Jackson. The rides present a unique opportunity for many of the kids at those events: “It’s the first time they seen a horse, first time they touch a horse,” McAlister says. “And as you get in the saddle: What a face! We see this, and we love it. Because we’re giving something. And sharing something.”
For Alporter, being a black cowboy is about celebrating his childhood, spent working summers on the Texas ranch his great-grandparents bought after emigrating from Ethiopia in the 1920s. Alporter, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Saturday while he rode in the parade but looks decades younger, remembers “a beautiful country—the land, the trees, the air, the lakes that are on the property, the sound of crickets.” He learned to ride, he says, at age seven.
“He said, ‘Man, don’t bring that horse out, it’s too frisky,’” Alporter remembers his uncle telling his father just before his first time on a young horse named Lucky. “My dad was saying, ‘No, no no, the horse will be fine. And he said ‘C’mere Andre!’ He didn’t even saddle the horse up, just put me on the horse’s back. I was holding onto his mane, and the horse just calmed down.”
He and Lucky developed a bond that would last a decade. “He would follow me like a little puppy,” Alporter says, adding, “I’d get on him, climb on his head, whatever. He didn’t care.”
Now Alporter relishes passing the joys of riding on to the next generation. He says he put his oldest daughter on her first horse when she was only three or four. And his three-year-old grandson rode his first pony last month. “I got to see it,” Alporter says with a hint of pride. He is considering buying his grandson tiny cowboy boots.
The black cowboy lifestyle has not been so easy on Brown, 50, who came to Oakland in 1985 from Arkansas and spends his non-cowboy hours as an events and programs specialist. Brown, who grew up in a cotton farming community, remembers afternoons playing outside and coming in to complain to his mother that his horse had thrown him. “I gave my horse a name—Stick Horse,” Brown says. “It was mother’s broom! So I used to be in the backyard riding the broom, bucking and getting thrown and getting back on.” When he turned 11 his mother finally gave in and bought him his first real pony, a Shetland named Lightning.
But after high school sports took over, Brown forgot about horses—until he went to the Bill Pickett rodeo decades later and fell back in love. Shortly after, he bought his own horses: Cookie, an Arabian, and Kunta Kinte, a thoroughbred with a wild streak. “I kept him for ten years,” Brown says of Kinte. “He threw me or I fell off probably 20 times.”
Perhaps due to his frequent injuries, Brown has been less than successful at bringing his children into the Black Cowboy tradition. He and his wife recently separated; one factor Brown cites was the amount of time he spent at the Hayward ranch where he boarded Kinte and Cookie (he now lives in Hayward, as well.) “It’s not just a weekend thing,” he says. “They’ve got to be fed every day.”
McAlister was not raised riding horses, but he still feels connected to the black cowboy tradition. He was born and raised in Madera, with roots in Texas: his great grandfather, Wyatt Gaffnay, lived on a ranch, he says, and as recently as during his mother’s childhood the family traveled by “wagon, horses, and buckboard [a simply-constructed wagon common in until the 19th century] because they was country folk.”
With this family history in mind, McAlister prefers to wear what he calls “western attire” in his daily life—not just at OBCA events. He favors cowboy boots with holes in the sides (he said has had them resoled at least twice), button-down shirts with jeans, and a cowboy hat with a Bill Pickett pin in the brim, a look he says was inspired by a childhood friend who wore a cowboy hat. (“Me and them boys used to play together, but that was a white boy thing. We ain’t interested in that. But he looked so good in that hat!”) Later, a cousin challenged him: “You got that hat but you ain’t got no belt buckle, no boots, you ain’t got no jeans like a cowboy. Man, you have got to step on up!” This uniform is what led an OBCA member to reach out to McAlister in a hardware store—the beginning of McAlister’s involvement and eventual leadership role in the organization.
On Saturday at the parade, McAlister was front and center. He acted as a sort of MC, providing an amplified half-sung, high-energy running commentary that belied his 74 years. “Y’all sure look mighty fine!” he called as the Front and Center Horse Club of Pinole passed the judges’ table. McAlister was carefully turned out for the event, his graying beard neatly shaven over sunken cheeks, crisply-pressed yellow OBCA button-down and neat jeans done up with a shining belt buckle, polished cowboy boots and a black cowboy hat completing the look. “Now wait a minute! Wait a minute now!”—stretching the last “wait” out like taffy—“What do I see? I see some beauties in a tractor!”
Years after his encounter in the hardware store, McAlister is a well-loved OBCA president. He owns a horse named Prince Diego, a gift from a friend but mostly leaves the riding to his grandson, Elijha McAlister, who is also an active member of the organization. McAlister’s son was murdered in Oakland in 1991, when Elijha McAlister was just one year old. His mother “allowed him to spend a lot of time with me, and from that he’s been in this culture since he was little,” McAlister says. “I put him on a horse when he was maybe 3 years old. First thing he said was ‘giddyup!’, I don’t know where in the hell he got that from!”
On Saturday, Elijha McAlister—now 24, tall, with a quick, brilliant smile— seemed to be everywhere at once: warming up horses, consulting with the cowboys manning the t-shirt stand, getting the ponies ready for rides (“He’s real good with the kids,” McAlister says.)
“She knows I don’t mess around, so she knows he’s in a clean environment,” McAlister says of his grandson’s mother. “When he goes out with me she don’t worry.”
“You look at today’s modern day culture, it’s just so big of an array of uncertainty, mistrust,” Alporter says, “but the cowboy culture is a culture where your handshake is as good as a contract, you know. Your word is your bond. And we try to instill that back into the youth.”
The parade and the OBCA itself represent an opportunity for the Oakland community to renegotiate a complicated reality filled with violence and frustration and to fight back against mainstream portrayals of the city that are often overwhelmingly negative. “We don’t advocate drugs or alcohol,” McAlister said. “Not even cigarettes. We’ve got a few that do it, but it ain’t going to be around no kids. We all tell them, ‘Man, you got to smoke a cigarette? You go over there that side to smoke.’”
Many visitors and parade attendees seemed to appreciate the organization’s positive impact. “I think it’s good for Oakland,” said Christine Cook, 25, as she watched her sister march by in formation with Oakland Military Academy. “You turn on the news and all you see is negativity. It’s good to have something like this to focus on.”
And the crowd did focus: as brass bands and Mexican riders in traditional vaquero costumes marched by, small children tugged their mothers’ arms and pointed: “Horsey, horsey, mama! Giddyup!”
Nearby, a tall, skinny pre-teen girl with cornrows and braces shrieked, “Oh my god, look at the horse!”
Joseph Anderson, who grew up in Mississippi going to rodeos and had brought his two grandsons to the parade from Richmond, was appreciative of the unique opportunity it represents. “It means a lot to me to be able to expose them to this positive side of the culture,” Anderson said. “Because there’s so much negativity going on, and I want to raise them right.”
His grandsons craned their necks and yelled excitedly at each passing rider. “I wanna ride, granddaddy! I wanna ride!” said his older grandson, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“I heard you!” Anderson answered. “How many times are you going to tell me?”
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