The image of the American cowboy throughout movies and television is largely that of a tall, middle-aged white male with a gruff exterior, most likely hailing from Texas. The cowboys of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo contradict all of the above, as they represent black men (and young boys and girls) from all parts of the country–including the South Side of Chicago, Los Angeles, the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. They ride for a largely forgotten legacy.

They come tattooed, pierced, with and without southern drawls. They are pastors and police officers and businesspeople, belying stereotypes of what a traditional cowboy looks, acts, and sounds like.

Lu Vason, the creator of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, himself was a jovial man from Berkeley, Calif. without the traditional waistline or background of a cowboy. He worked as a barber before starting a life in the rodeo. Honoring the unflinching Bill Pickett, who was the first black cowboy movie star and the originator of “bulldogging” technique in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vason picked up the proverbial reins and created a space for a different kind of cowboy legacy. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was created in 1984. Vason died in May, after years battling heart disease.

The lineage of black cowboys in the American West goes back to descendants of former slaves whose families had been brought to America from western Africa. Historians believe that many blacks became cowboys in the West through influence of European and Native American counterparts.

Photos in this series by Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois are from the rodeo’s Los Angeles appearance in July. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will appear in Upper Marlboro, Md. at The Show Place Arena and Prince George’s Equestrian Center on Sept. 19.

More In Sight: