Proud Cowboys Still Tall in the Saddle

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ron Williams is doing everything he can to make sure his two grandsons love horses as much as he does. He's teaching 7-year-old Demarie how to ride, and he watches rodeos with 17-year-old Robert.

"This is the legacy I'm trying to hand down," he said in Prince George's County yesterday at a reunion of "old-school cowboys," predominantly African American.

The reunion, the first of what organizers said they hope will be an annual event, was intended to pass along traditions and tales from an older generation of riders to a younger group of horse enthusiasts.

Williams, 56, of Brandywine said he thinks he's the only black cowboy riding professionally in rodeos on the East Coast. Williams, his bushy mustache graying, said he wants to make sure cowboys are not a dying breed in these parts.

"Every year I say I'm going to quit, but I don't," he said, digging into hearty helpings of chicken, green beans and corn. "I know once I stop, all the old pain and injuries will catch up with me. I already bought my rocking chair. I just don't sit in it."

More than 100 people gathered on a big field, with rows of corn growing on one edge, at Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro to talk about horsemanship. Many said they were attracted to the image of the cowboy from an early age, although most have jobs in other fields and enjoy riding as a pastime.

The reunion brought together many older men and women who had fallen out of touch since they rode together regularly in the 1980s. Most brought kids and grandkids who have also taken up riding. The event coincided with the National Day of the American Cowboy.

The reunion was Cynthia Hagan's idea. Growing up, the 40-year-old Lanham resident was enchanted by tales from her uncle about the good old days. In January, she said, she decided to introduce the new generation of horse enthusiasts in the area to older riders.

The names of most of the invitees came from 72-year-old Joe Green, who gave Hagan a list of the people he remembered as regular weekend riders in the 1980s. A committee contacted as many of them as they could find.

"It's just like oldhome week," said Green, who wore a big belt buckle he won at a New Mexico horse-roping contest in 2001.

Walter Jenkins, 60, of Upper Marlboro rode his horse on the Mall as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival more than 20 years ago. The only other black cowboy there that day was from Philadelphia, he said, and the two struck up a friendship. For a decade, they and other friends would meet with their horses at trails in the region.

Jenkins's love affair with horses began when he was an 8-year-old paperboy in the District. The last stop on his route was a stable in Rock Creek Park, the retired U.S. Postal Service employee said.

"My attire was western," Jenkins said. "I just liked the cowboy. The hats. The boots. The look."

He and others showed off photos from memorable rides and of beloved horses that had long since died.

Charlie Sanders, 75, learned how to ride from watching movie cowboys. As a teenager in the District, where he still lives, he would work in stables in exchange for riding time. If he couldn't figure out how to do a trick he saw in a film, he'd see the movie again.

He keeps his horse in Burtonsville and rides almost every day. Yesterday, he wore a favorite pair of cowboy boots.

"They're the type Roy Rogers wore," he said proudly.

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