(Bloomberg) -- Skylar Brandon was only 18 months old when she first laid eyes on her “bestie,” Charlene. She’d gone to a rodeo in Oakland, California, with her grandmother, says Skylar’s mom, Shannon Williams-Brandon. “Apparently, Skylar was so star-struck by this white horse named Charlene. My mom told me she just gravitated towards this horse.”

When Skylar’s grandmother offered to pay for riding lessons, Skylar met the 1,200-pound Peruvian mare up close. She and Charlene have been inseparable since. 

Now 6, Skylar has won two peewee barrel races riding at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), the only Black-owned traveling rodeo association, though she doesn’t seem to care about the hundreds of dollars she’s earned in prizes. When asked to describe her favorite thing about racing, Skylar’s answer is clear: “Going fast.” 

For Valeria Howard-Cunningham, president of the BPIR, stories like Skylar’s are why it exists. “I love seeing the young kids get into rodeo,” says Howard-Cunningham. “I can see the excitement in their faces when they compete—and the friendships they’re making with other cowboys and cowgirls. Our rodeo is about developing that next generation.”

 

BPIR was founded in 1984 by event promoter Lu Vason, Howard-Cunningham’s late husband. Known for working with musical groups such as the Pointer Sisters and the Whispers, Vason got the idea for an all-Black rodeo when he attended Cheyenne Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. He was shocked at the dearth of Black riders and viewers. 

Soon after, he visited the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center in Denver, where he learned about Black contributions to Western American culture. There he came upon the perfect namesake for his idea: Bill Pickett, the famous Black cowboy and rodeo performer.

For 30 years, BPIR toured cities across the U.S., entertaining huge crowds with barrel races for adults and kids. There’s also bull riding, in which riders cling to a bucking bull in hopes of lasting at least eight seconds, and calf roping, which involves lassoing a calf and tying its legs together. Cowboys and cowgirls compete for cash prizes and championship titles in separate categories. In a busy year,  says Howard-Cunningham, the rodeo would appear in more than a dozen cities. 

“Lu’s vision was to create this rodeo association and put it in venues that people had never been in before—providing much larger platforms for Black cowboys and cowgirls to showcase their talents,” she says. “He was very successful at that.”

When Vason passed away in 2015, Howard-Cunningham says she hesitated to carry on producing the BPIR. “It was the community that convinced me that they needed this and I needed to find a way to make this rodeo continue to happen,” she says. “Lu always believed that to be successful, you needed to surround yourself with strong women and—certainly in this case—it turned out to be true.”

 

Over the past decade, Howard-Cunningham and her team of 11 event coordinators and promoters have reinvigorated the event. It’s nowhere near as big as Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which hosts hundreds of events per year and whose champion last year, Rafael Jose de Brito, earned a reported $1.5 million for the season.

But for the past two years, Howard-Cunningham says all BPIR shows have been sold-out events. It currently hosts more than 20 rodeos annually across seven states. And it turns 40 this year, making it the longest continuing Black-owned rodeo in the country.

Howard-Cunningham first met Vason on a flight to Denver just days before his first Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “He told me he was producing an all-Black rodeo in Denver and invited me to come see the show,” she says. “I had no clue what a rodeo was, much less that Black people were involved. The only thing I had ever seen on TV was The Lone Ranger.”

She didn’t go. “I had tickets to see Michael Jackson that night,” she says.

 

The two kept in touch, however, and started dating. She eventually got a front-row seat to Vason’s visions. “Once I started attending rodeos with Lu, I saw the level of commitment people had for this event,” she says. “Black riders were excited because they got to actually perform on platforms that they had never been on before. I saw that generations of families were bringing their kids to the rodeo, and I realized this was a family affair.”

The BPIR has since played a vital role in celebrating a culture little known to most Americans. Although many historians estimate that up to 25% of 19th century cowboys were Black, popular media long have ignored the contributions of Black men and women to the culture of the American West.

William “Bill” Pickett, the rodeo’s namesake, was a ranch hand in Texas in the late 1800s, responsible for catching wild Texas Longhorn steers. He became famous for his technique of  “bulldogging”—grabbing a steer by its horns, biting its lip and using his weight to make the steer fall on its side. Pickett started participating in rodeos in 1888 and competed against White cowboys in hundreds of events across the West. 

Although the practice of biting a steer’s lip is no longer used, today’s BPIR audiences can watch cowboys chase and dog steers weighing as much as 700 pounds.

With his background in event promotion and artist management, Vason was able to get people excited about rodeo. Howard-Cunningham’s guidance brought financial success. “Before I came on board, I’m not sure anyone had done a cost analysis by market and took notice of what was working in certain cities and what wasn’t,” she says. “When Lu passed, I started tapping into all the strong Black women already involved in the rodeo that had skills in marketing and event coordination.”

 

The Bill Pickett Legacy Tour visits cities that have hosted the rodeo for 40 years: Denver, Memphis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Oakland, California. In 2022, a partnership with PBR led to creation of the Texas Connection Series, which includes eight shows across four days in the Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth.

The season ends with finals in Washington and Maryland, where champions from previous rodeos are invited to compete for the top ranking in their category. Winners win cash prizes, and some get the chance to compete in bigger rodeos. In 2022, the top women’s barrel racer at BPIR received an invitation to the 2022 Women’s Rodeo World Championships.

Opportunities have even started to arise in less traditional places.

Last summer, Kamal Miller, a 28-year-old Black cowboy from Carson, California, who participates in BPIR’s bull riding competitions, was approached by representatives from Louis Vuitton to walk in the brand’s Fall-Winter 2024 collection show in Paris. 

“At first, I thought: ‘Louis Vuitton and Western? This ain’t real’,” says Miller.

But it was. Early in 2023, Louis Vuitton had designated music producer and designer Pharrell as its new creative director. Pharrell’s vision for the men’s collection was to explore the evolution of workwear with iconic Western touches often seen at Bill Pickett rodeos.

“The fashion at a Bill Pickett rodeo is amazing,” says photographer Gabriela Hasbun, who’s been photographing the events for more than a decade. “You’ve got the traditional cowboy fashion of pressed Wranglers and snakeskin boots, which some cowboys told me they go to Tijuana to have custom-made. They all take so much pride in what they wear.”

After Miller’s preferred style of Wrangler jeans and Ariat boots caught the eye of LV representatives, the company flew the cowboy to Paris and gave him quick lessons in modeling before Miller walked in the new collection’s debut on Jan. 16. 

“Pharrell helped pick my bag and my boots,” says Miller. “He talked about wanting to shine a light on Black cowboy culture and to let people like me be seen in popular culture. I hope this helps the younger generations see that being a Black cowboy is a lifestyle.”

The horses at a Bill Pickett Rodeo can be just as stylish as the cowboys and cowgirls who ride them. Some rodeo participants braid their horse’s manes or buy custom saddles and rope cans. Even 6-year-old Skylar paints Charlene’s hooves green—she calls them “her nails”—and adds glitter decals to her coat before racing.

Giving back has always been a priority. In 1987, Vason and Howard-Cunningham founded the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund to help talented Black cowboys and cowgirls pay their entry fees to rodeos. As the BPIR continued to grow, so has the vision for the scholarship fund. In 2022 the name was changed to Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Foundation and expanded its mission to include connecting young people to jobs in agriculture or animal science.

“We want to educate kids more about what it means to be a Black cowboy, own your own land and raise your own stock,” says Howard-Cunningham. “We support young people who want to be professional competitors, as well as young people who are going to college to become veterinarians or even rodeo promoters.”

Late in 2023, Crown Royal announced a partnership with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Foundation to give four participants $25,000 grants apiece to support their rodeo careers. The foundation was also awarded $697,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support workshops that connect young adults to careers in agriculture.

“People told Lu he would never be successful and what we do would never survive,” Howard-Cunningham says. Now she’s thinking longer term. “Forty years later, we’re still the greatest show on dirt, and 40 years from now the Bill Pickett Rodeo will still be going on. Those young cowboys and cowgirls who are 3, 4 and 5 years old now will be running it.”

 

 

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