More than 5,000 people, many of them children, crowded into stands of the D.C. Armory yesterday to gawk at cowboys who rode thundering broncos and bulls while adding a new dimension to images of the Wild West.
For many in the predominantly black audience, the two-day-long Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was the first chance they'd had to see authentic black cowboys and cowgirls in action. And for many, the black rodeo became an afternoon's corrective history lesson.
"Hey, there you go," Harold Cash said to a shy boy who had offered the towering, coffee-colored cowboy his rodeo program to autograph.
With flickering dark eyes and a toothy grin, Cash, of Houston, bowed and handed back proof of his existence to all who cared to ask him. And many did, venturing as close as they ever had to quarter horses and bulls that rocked impatiently behind steel-tube fences.
"A lot of these kids ain't never seen a black cowboy," Cash said. "I know when I was growing up in Wharton, Tex., I didn't know nothing about black cowboys, either. All I knew was Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger."
But Cash and rodeos like the Pickett Invitational through its "salute to black cowboys" are changing the popular mythology of the Old West.
In stark contrast to the Frederick Remington renderings and Hollywood images of the American West as a strictly white, male domain, historians now claim that one of seven cowboys was black in the late 19th century zenith of the Wild West era.
Bill Pickett, a black cowboy for whom the rodeo is named, is said to have originated bulldogging, an event in which a cowboy throws a bull to the ground by its horns. A Denver Post reporter in 1904 referred to Pickett as the "Dusty Demon of the Cow Range."
Bull rider Charlie (Pee Wee) Sampson, who performed Saturday, became the first black world champion bull rider in 1982.
"Blacks have always been involved in rodeos," said Keith Williams, a beefy 25-year-old from Tulsa. "It's just that we and our black ancestors have not been recognized."
Williams, who said God has always intended him to ride leaping quarter horses bareback, is a cowboy through and through. He said the western boots and jeans, snake-skin belt and bicycle-reflector-sized silver buckle at his narrow waist are no put-on.
"I'm a cowboy to my soul," he said in a southwestern drawl. "Every now and then when I go to a western clothing store -- if I'm not in a familiar place -- they look at you like you can't be a cowboy. Like there ain't no such thing."
"I think these are positive role models," said Lorraine Brannon, a Northwest Washington clinical psychologist, who was at the rodeo. "I think it is good for kids to know that we are part of the making of American history in all its facets."
Organizers of the rodeo, which was sponsored by Adolph Coors Co., said 134 cowboys and cowgirls performed during the weekend rodeo. Most, but not all of them, are black.
Rick Healey, a Washington area white construction worker who grew up in the West, said he came to ride in the rodeo in the name of his father, who died three weeks ago.
Looking out over the throng of lean, square-jawed blacks riding tall on their steeds, Healey said color is not the definition of a cowboy.
"We're all doing the same thing," he said. "We're doing the same thing because we're all cowboys."