Rawhide Western Town in Chandler hosts all sorts of events, but this weekend’s has a connection to history not widely known. The venue is again hosting the Arizona Black Rodeo.
Black cowboys go all the way back to the Wild West. Freed slaves in particular were drawn to that life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the West.
Nat Love is a well-known name from the past, becoming famous after publishing an autobiography on his journey from slavery to cowboy in Texas and Arizona.
Around that time, Bill Pickett was born to former slaves in Texas. He became a ranch hand and invented the technique of bulldogging, or steer wrestling. He joined a “Ranch Show” and performed around the world.
Despite this history, blacks were kept out of mainstream rodeos, so they competed separately in their own events. Eventually, a professional black rodeo circuit was started in the United States in the 1940s, with the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association. Now, Cloves Campbell has picked up the torch.
“My wife, Lanette, and I are fans of cowboys and rodeos,” said Campbell, who is COO of the Arizona Informant black newspaper in Phoenix. He also was a state representative for two terms. His father, Cloves Sr., who was a co-founder of the newspaper, was also a state representative and Arizona’s first black senator.
“One year, my wife said ‘Let’s check out the Bill Pickett rodeo,’ which came to Phoenix about 15 years ago. We saw they needed assistance promoting it.”
Relying on his own background in journalism and business, they helped the rodeo get the word out.
“We helped them out for three or four years,” Campbell said. “Then we said, ‘We can do this ourselves.’ We decided seven years ago to take over the Arizona Black Rodeo.
“We started at Rawhide when we took over. It had been in a ranch in Phoenix. Before, it was too small for national recognition. In larger rodeos, cowboys can use their times for national competition. Now that we’ve grown, they can.”
Campbell said about 75 to 80 black cowboys participate in national rodeo tours. The Arizona Black Rodeo is affiliated with Black Rodeo USA, one of several black rodeo circuits. He said black cowboys mostly compete in a smaller circuit.
“It’s like the G League for the NBA,” he said, comparing it to basketball’s developmental league. “If you get better, you move up into the big leagues.”
Despite its successes, the Arizona Black Rodeo has had its rough days. Once, unrelenting rain was the culprit.
“We wanted to cancel, but people showed up, and cowboys competed in the mud and rain,” he said.
“Even if we only have 10 fans, we want to give them their money’s worth.”
The rodeo emphasizes a link to black history and culture.
On its website, this statement sums up the vision:
“The Arizona Black Rodeo promotes an appreciation for our cultural heritage by providing an educational experience about the role African Americans played in shaping the history of the West.”
Another part of that vision is helping the next generation. The rodeo gives scholarships to students in agriculture and the equine sciences.
“We want to start more scholarships,” Campbell said. “We try to give back. The goal is to help kids along the way.”
Campbell has ambitious plans for the rodeo, too. He hopes to build a circuit of his own, with plans afoot for shows in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and even Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which several of the cowboys call home.
“We hope to add six or seven this year and continue to grow,” he said.
“People always ask us why still do a black rodeo, now that they can compete. It’s the same as the Indian rodeo, Hispanic rodeo, gay rodeo. It’s a way to support the community,” Campbell said.
“It’s always great for them to see themselves in print.”
The Arizona Black Rodeo is at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at 5700 W. North Loop Road. Tickets are $10 and $15. The shows will feature bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, steer undecorating and barrel racing, along with mutton bustin’ and calf scramble for kid cowboys.
– Contact Ralph Zubiate at 480-898-6825 or firstname.lastname@example.org.