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Black cowboy association

New documentary celebrates Oakland’s ‘last Black cowboy’

on November 17, 2021

Half a dozen people sporting cowboy hats and boots stood in a queue outside of Eli’s Mile High Club, chatting in hushed excitement, some squeezing together for selfies. 

The occasion was the Oct. 2 premiere of “Cowboy,” a documentary about the life of “Oakland’s last Black cowboy,” 80-year-old Wilbert Freeman McAlister. He is president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, which is a non-profit focused on preserving the history of African Americans who were crucial to the establishment of the West.

Beginning this week, “Cowboy” is available to stream on Western American’s YouTube channel, bringing the story to a wide audience. 

Before the screening in October, McAlister sauntered on stage in white leather chaps bearing his first and last name on each leg. The customization was unnecessary as many in the bar already knew his name. 

“I want to take the time to thank everybody and to say that I am that cowboy,” McAlister said. “Do you know his name?”

The sold-out crowd returned, “Cowboy!”

“That’s his name, ‘Cowboy,’” McAlister said.

McAlister’s daughter, Charlene McAlister-Smith, considers her father a historian and thinks it’s important that people know the history of the Black cowboys.

“We need to give credit where credit should be due,” McAlister-Smith said.

Historically credit is due. After the Civil War, many cattle ranchers in Texas hired newly freed slaves, many of whom were already experienced cowhands, to handle uncontrolled herds. After emancipation, historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys was Black

Because the Texas cattle industry was so lucrative in the late 19th century, the national cattle trade depended on these Black cowboys to expand and stimulate the economy of the West and beyond. 

The film shows McAlister’s charm, with scenes of him gleefully shopping in a Western apparel store and breaking into dance at DeFremery Park. But James Manson, who directed “Cowboy,” hopes the audience takes the more serious scenes to heart. In one, McAlister talks about how he lost a son in 1991.

“There are parts in the documentary that are not nice. They’re not easy things to deal with, especially if it’s your life up on screen. But I thought that’s the real beauty of Cowboy,” Manson said, “He takes the good and the bad in life and is able to make whatever he can from that. He’s just a normal human being”

Three days before the premiere at Eli’s, McAlister sat on a bench at DeFremery Park in West Oakland and addressed his mission as the association’s president.

“I let people know that people of color played a very important part in the movement of the West after slavery. We were there and we’re still here,” McAlister said.

Since 1975, McAlister and the OBCA have played a major role in community outreach in West Oakland and the greater Bay Area. Last year, they rode on horseback through West Oakland to encourage residents to participate in the U.S. Census. They also have visited Oakland Tech and other schools to educate kids about African Americans in the American West. The group also hosts an annual parade, which has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The future of the OBCA depends on youth involvement and McAlister admits that there has been some trouble getting young people to care.

“As the president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, I wonder and I worry about that. Because they’re not jumping aboard,” McAlister said, “It doesn’t look real bright.”

McAlister and Andre Alporter, the OBCA’s media specialist, feel hopeful when they see young people get excited when members trot around Oakland on horses.

“Some of them won’t walk up to them, they’re scared, it’s a big animal,” McAlister said.  “But when they see others do it and see how others react, they come up a little bit at a time. And when we get one on a horse, we’re like, ‘Got ‘em!’” 

While at DeFremery Park, the OBCA’s home of operations, McAlister acknowledged his love for Hollywood’s western imagery in entertainers like John Wayne and Roy Rogers but is disappointed at the lack of Black representation.

“I was crazy about those people. I used to go to movies all the time, pay my little 10 cents to watch them. And I was always fascinated by how they’d shoot their guns and ride their horses. But I never saw an image of Black,” McAlister said.

The documentary is a step toward changing that.

Black cowboy association
Wilbert Freeman McAlister views “Cowboy” for the first time, at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland. (Andrew Lopez)

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