John Ferguson's multimedia project The Forgotten Cowboys sheds light on important and underrepresented aspect of American history: the black cowboy.
Through photography and a documentary film in progress, Ferguson hopes to represent a lifestyle that has been centuries in the making. To do so, he traveled from his home in the U.K. to the U.S. and met with professionals in the field to witness firsthand the rodeos where these cowboys put their skills to the test.
As a ten year old boy playing Cowboys with friends at my junior school in England, I was never allowed to be a cowboy, I could only be a native American Indian. I was told 'Black boys were never cowboys; Have you ever seen a black cowboy!?'
Actually, some of the first Cowboys were black. Black men born into slavery found they experienced less open discrimination and a better life on the open range. Even the name 'Cowboy' came from slavery days. From the Cabin boy to the House boy, field boy, Kitchen boy to Cow boy.
After the American civil war many experienced black cowboys enlisted in the Army Calvary and were known as Buffalo Soldiers. Black cowboys where brilliant horseman, and many went on to become ranch foremen and managers, while others were hired as federal peace officers in the Indian Territories.
African American cowboys, however, had to survive discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. The lives of these cowhands tell a story of skill and grit, as they did what was necessary to gain the trust and respect of those who controlled their destiny.
That meant being the best at roping, bronc busting, taming mustangs, calling the brands, controlling the remuda, or topping off horses.
During the shoot, John interviewed Kevin Woodson, a retired bullfighter and Cowboys of Colour Rodeo MC, who shared his knowledge on the history of black cowboys.
If you didn't know any better, you would think, 'well that's odd for a black guy to be a cowboy'. But it wasn't odd in the least bit. Out of all the cowboys, one out of four was a black man. The first guy killed in dodge city, a black man. Got hit by a stray bullet and buried under the name 'Tex'. Three fifth of the cowboys on the Chisholm trail drive, African American Cowboys. These are things that if you don't know, they'll go on unseen.
The only one's I saw were your white archetypal, squared jawed, all American gunslinging heroes. The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, right up to The Marlboro Man, the list is endless, but not one single black cowboy amongst them. We all grew up watching Wild West Tv series and Cowboy films, but how many films can you remember that feature black cowboys,...not too many.
I went in search of the forgotten cowboys and to my great surprise found a large and thriving African American cowboy community. From New Mexico to Texas and as far up as the San Francisco Bay Area, many African Americans can trace their lineage right back to the old South.
John Ferguson is a photographer and documentarian based in London. To view more of his work, check out his website at johnferguson.co.uk.