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North Carolina's Black cowboy clubs keep the spirit of the frontier alive

  A cowpoke watches the sun set at a rodeo in Love Valley, N.C. on Nov. 6, 2021.
Nick de la Canal
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A cowpoke watches the sun set at a rodeo in Love Valley, N.C. on Nov. 6, 2021.

A trend is emerging among some big - name Black celebrities. Maybe you've noticed Lil Nas X, Beyonce, Solange and others have all been decking themselves out in cowboy boots, 10-gallon hats and leather jackets with curtains of fringe.

Some Twitter users have dubbed this trend the #yeehawagenda, but Black cowboy culture has been around for a long time, thanks in large part to generations of African Americans who've kept the traditions of the Wild West alive in backyard stables and informal cowboy and cowgirl social clubs.

All across the country, these Black cowboy and cowgirl groups — called saddle clubs — ride through urban downtowns and suburban pastures. Occasionally, they organize rodeos and other social events to meet other African American cowpokes around the region, and those involved in the subculture say interest in their clubs is growing.

More than a dozen Black saddle clubs rode into the small town of Love Valley in the North Carolina mountains last month for a weekend camp out, trail ride and a Saturday night rodeo.

The air was crisp and smelled of dust and livestock as a crowd pressed against the metal barriers to watch riders compete in skilled feats of horsemanship — such as one cowboy who drew whoops and yips from the crowd as he rode horses two-at-a-time around the ring.

This particular rodeo was organized by a group of six cowgirls from Charlotte who call themselves "Sisters with Horses."

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When they're not in the saddle, the group's president, Angela Simmons, works as a nurse, and the club's vice president, Nazirah Muhammad, is a security guard and medical transport. But off the clock, they like to ride and take care of their horses, and organize group rides and social events for the other saddle clubs in the Southeast region.

"Basically, we just want to get together, ride and have a good time , " Muhammad said. "This is our relaxation for the weekend, and that's pretty much it. It's that simple . "

Charlotte residents may have spotted them before in the city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, or on their annual ride in April, when they saddle up with other riders for a trot through uptown.

The "Sisters with Horses" posse always gets a reaction on those city rides, Simmons said.

"People were just amazed that a woman was on a horse, and not just a that — a woman of color," she said. "People just don't see that. That's not just an everyday thing."

Maybe people shouldn't be so surprised. African Americans played a significant role in settling the West, and many of them were cowboys, according to writer and podcaster Zaron Burnett, who hosts the iHeart podcast Black Cowboys.

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"It's estimated that one in four cowboys were Black, and that population was spread across the country," Burnett said.

Many of those early western cowboys were recently freed enslaved people migrating from the South, Burnett said . And they made good cowboys because they knew how to handle livestock, and cattle companies could pay them cheap wages.

Over the years, many Black communities kept their stables open even after trains and cars took over , and they kept the traditions alive.

Black men and women on horseback were a symbol of power back then, Burnett said, and they still are today.

"It feels really good and strong to be on a horseback. You're elevated. The horse is a powerful animal," he said . "So when you saw, like the George Floyd protests in Oakland — there were a lot of Black cowboys who came out on horseback to say, 'Look, we've been here, we continue to be here, and this is who we are.'"

At the rodeo, Jay Black leaned back in his saddle, watching the riders compete inside the ring. Like a lot of modern day cowboys, he said he learned to ride from older members of his family.

"Been doing it all my life," he said. "My family had horses, my granddad had farm animals. We always had farm animals. We grew up on the farm pretty much, and just always had horses."

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That's why the first chance he got, he bought his 6 -year-old son, Jason, a pony. And so far, Jason said he's into it.

"They're very calm, and I like them," his son said with a smile.

Near the front of the crowd, Gwen Sutton said she had no idea there were Black cowboy clubs until her son recently hung out with some teens at a stable in Charlotte's University area.

"He went to a barn and came back and said, 'Ma, can I get a horse?'" Sutton said . "And I said, '(Will you learn) responsibility?' and he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Well, if that will keep you out the street.'"

Sutton said she found one for cheap, "and ever since then, he's been riding horses."

She said she was glad her son got roped in with the cowboys. Now he has something connecting him with African Americans of the Wild West, and now maybe he'll lead the next generation of cowboys and keep their traditions alive.
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