Hollywood Western films are filled with archetypes. Tumbleweed and cacti. Campsites under the stars with cozy fires and cans of beans. In town, a saloon with a wily gunslinger and an analytical sheriff sipping on foamy mugs of beer. Center screen, a cowboy with a strong moral compass, an even stronger jawline and skin that is tanned but always white.
But that’s just Hollywood. In reality, cowboys worked long hours away from their families, driving cattle hundreds of miles. They calmly roamed towns, maintaining order. They rode angry bulls in rowdy arenas. In reality, many cowboys were Black men.
Larry Callies is one of those Black cowboys, and he’s keeping that history alive.
Callies was born in 1952 in El Campo, Texas, a small town situated on a railroad in the Coastal Plains 75 miles southwest of Houston.
The first time he went to a rodeo, it was Juneteenth. He was only three or maybe four years old, and on the way there he stood up on the bench seat of his dad’s pick-up truck, his parents on either side of him and his brothers piled into the truck bed, excitedly imagining what he would see.
“I loved to watch bull riding, bareback riding and calf roping,” Callies said. “I fell in love with the sport.
After that, Callies went to rodeos around the state every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the summer, helping his father haul stock. Each Sunday, he would get to visit the Black rodeos.
In high school, while his brothers played more typical sports like football, basketball, and track and field, Callies started rodeo. And he excelled — Callies was the second Black man to make the National High School Rodeo finals in 1971. He rode bulls and roped calves for about ten years before starting a country music career. He was managed by George Strait’s manager and sang for President George W. Bush, Governor Ann Richards and Tejano singer Selena.
But his singing career was short-lived. In the mid-90s, vocal dysphonia gave him a permanent rasp. So he returned to rodeo, and at 68 years old, he still rides horses and ropes kids and steers almost every weekend. In 2017, he opened his three-room Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg and has since been recognized by the mayor and featured in The New York Times.
Callies’ rich life is just one in a long history of Black cowboys in Texas. The first were slaves, who drove cattle for the white families who owned cottom farms and ranches. While white men left home to fight in the Civil War, slaves maintained the land and the herd, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
“[Families] had a house boy, they had a yard boy, and somebody worked the cows, and he was called a cow boy. That’s where the word came from.”
The word “boy” originated in Middle English as a word for servant. Because of this, Callies says only Black men were cowboys, while white men were cowhands or cowpunchers.
“The white man in Texas in the 1800s refused to be called a cow boy because that was a slave name,” Callies said. “He would say, ‘I’m not your boy.’”
Old Western movies have crafted a romanticized cowboy lifestyle, but Callies said driving cattle across the midwest was hard work. One stampede, a snake hiding under a blanket, or a band of robbers could kill a cowboy in two seconds.
“There was death everywhere,” Callies said. “That’s why the Black cowboy did it and not the white man. The white man wasn’t going to do that for $10 a month.”
In the pioneer era following the Civil War, 1 in 4 cowboys were Black, according to The New York Times. Once slaves were emancipated in 1865, and working as a cowboy could earn more pay, white men started getting involved.
Even though white men were not always involved in the trade, depictions of cowboys were almost always white.
U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, the real-life cowboy who many believe inspired the iconic radio, movie and television character the Lone Ranger, was Black, even though he is played by white actors. The jockey who won the first-ever Kentucky Derby in 1875, Oliver Lewis, was a Black man. But Callies says the Kentucky Derby Museum only displays a statue of his horse, Aristides, not Lewis himself.
“People are beginning to know it,” Callies said. “Four or five years ago, nobody had heard that.”
When Callies was attending rodeos in the 60s and 70s, he remembers being forced to sit in the back, despite paying the same for his ticket as white people who sat up front. He noticed when a judge would write down a Black rider’s time wrong, to keep him from winning. Sometimes, Callies himself was cheated.
“There were times that I knew I was cheated, but what can I do about it?” Callies said. “I was riding for the fun of it. I wasn’t riding for the money or the glory.”
And Callies says the discrimintion he saw at rodeos is only a small part of the discrimination Black people face in all aspects of life.
“That’s why people are marching now, why people are in the streets,” Callies said. “That’s why so many Black people are saying, ‘we need to take to the streets and change things’ because the white people are never going to change it unless we make it change.”
Callies hopes his museum can help change these patterns of discrimination and erasure. He has traveled all over Texas, collecting photographs, belt buckles and saddles, and he continues to collect memorabilia for the museum. One day, he hopes to have statues of real Black cowboys on display.
“I want people to know they were here and they meant a lot of America,” Callies said. “It was the Black cowboy that drove cattle to Kansas. They were feeding America.”