Black Rodeo

11-year-old cowgirl Kortnee Solomon competes at the first televised Black rodeo

Photographer Ivan McClellan documents her journey

At age 11, Kortnee Solomon is already a pro on the rodeo trail, having won numerous championships in recent years. As a fourth-generation Texas cowgirl, riding and roping is in Kortnee’s blood – she officially debuted at just 5 years old at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the oldest Black-owned rodeo circuit in the United States. The daughter of 11-time invitational champion Kanesha Jackson and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tie-down roper Cory Solomon, Kortnee loves to compete, never backing down from the opportunity to test her mettle against women twice her age and male athletes.

With coronavirus pandemic restrictions lifting, the invitational is back in full swing, kicking off the season with a historic event in celebration of Juneteenth. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Showdown in Vegas aired on CBS, becoming the first Black rodeo to air on national broadcast television. Produced in partnership with the Professional Bull Riders, the rodeo featured seven events, including bareback, bulldogging and calf roping. Kortnee competes in the ladies barrel and junior breakaway events.

For Kortnee, the road to Las Vegas required a combination of dedication, perseverance and good times, for Black rodeo is about more than just the mastery of sport, it is an ongoing celebration of community, culture and heritage. One of Kortnee’s most cherished memories from the Vegas trip was seeing her friends for the first time since January 2020, the last time the invitational convened. “I got and gave lots of hugs,” she said happily.

Photographer Ivan McClellan, who has been documenting Black cowboys and cowgirls since 2015, gives us a look at Kortnee’s extraordinary life made possible by love and support, alongside a group of athletes who cannot and will not be denied.

Growing up in a rodeo family, Kanesha Jackson (left), who was born in 1989, started riding horses when she was 3 years old and won her first all-around saddle competition with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo a decade later. As the daughter of Stephanie Haynes (center), 18-time invitational champion who sits on its board of directors, and stepdaughter of the late Sedgwick Haynes, general manager of the invitational, Jackson understands the importance of tradition and legacy, but she also wants to be sure her daughter Kortnee Solomon (right) has a well-rounded childhood. “I want Kortnee to live through her own purpose,” Jackson said. “She loves horses, but she also does dance, gymnastics, cheerleading and basketball. I want her to experience everything so she doesn’t feel like she missed out during her childhood.”

Kortnee Solomon braids her horse’s hair at her home in Hempstead, Texas. The horses are fully integrated into her and her mother’s everyday lives. They feed, groom, train and ride them regularly, developing powerful bonds inside and outside the arena. “We have a great relationship with the horses, it’s almost like we talk to them and they talk to us,” Kanesha Jackson said. “It’s very much like people and their dogs. All the horses have their own unique personality — some are laid-back, some are very outgoing. Kortnee’s horse Tiny is very laid-back, kind of a loner. She doesn’t like to be bothered, especially when it comes to other horses. She’s basically like, ‘Get out of my face.’”

Kanesha Jackson (right) and Kortnee Solomon (left) let their horses out for the day at their home in Hempstead, Texas. “Kanesha and Kortnee are really bonded and close in an effortless way, they just take care of each other in an effortless way,” said Ivan McClellan, who photographed the mother-daughter rodeo champions. Here they’re enjoying a day at home, but they’re always ready to hop into Jackson’s “open air studio” — a truck with a trailer for the horse and the family. “We live on the road,” said Jackson. “We’re look forward to going to Denver, Atlanta, Memphis, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., to spend time with our Bill Pickett rodeo family.”

A pile of some of the awards Kanesha Jackson and Kortnee Solomon have won barrel racing over the years. Throughout the rodeo season, which runs May through September, there’s at least one each weekend, and Jackson’s and Kortnee’s wins have stacked up over the years. “I don’t even know how many events I’ve won,” Jackson said. “To be a champion you have to learn to lose like you learn to win. A lot of people say, ‘Don’t give up!,’ but I think it’s deeper than that. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is how to move so that when I do lose, I can take the good from it. There’s always good and bad, but you have to stay positive.”

Kortnee Solomon carries several buckets to go water her horses. On June 5, Stephanie Haynes, Kanesha Jackson and Kortnee loaded six horses into their trailer and drove out to Rosenberg, Texas, for the Amazing MLK Scholarship Rodeo. It was 90 degrees, and a heavy storm had just passed through, turning the ground to piles of mud. Kortnee, who had just come from winning a basketball game, took water to the horses about an hour and a half before the event began. “When the buckets are full, they’re so heavy that she has to hold on to the fence and drag them along,” photographer Ivan McClellan said.

Stephanie Haynes gets ready to compete in the ladies steer decorating competition in the Amazing MLK Scholarship Rodeo, where athletes rip a piece of duct tape off of a running steer. “Stephanie Haynes is rodeo royalty,” said Ivan McClellan, who snapped this photo right before Haynes entered the event. Women mount up, back their horses into the box, then the steer is released and the rider goes after it. “The goal is to rip a piece of duct tape off its back and the fastest person to do that wins the prize,” said McClellan. “It’s a tough sport that requires flexibility, agility and a lot of speed — and Stephanie is doing it in her 50s. She is the grande dame of the event. She missed the initial try, so she chased the steer around the arena for a minute just to get a time.”

Kanesha Jackson enters barrel No. 2 during a barrel racing competition at the Amazing MLK Scholarship Rodeo. She loves suiting up for competition. “It’s like when a superhero puts on their mask and goes into activation mode. It’s game time when you put your hat on,” Jackson said. Once she’s in the arena, Jackson goes into the zone the entire run. “I can’t hear the crowd. I can’t hear the announcer. I can’t hear the music. It’s just me and the horse for two or three barrels,” Jackson said. “Then when I finish, everything opens back up and I can hear the crowd and everything around me.”

Kanesha Jackson (right) helps her daughter Kortnee Solomon (left) prepare for the barrel racing competition at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. After arriving, they were in for a shock — Tiny’s back legs were swollen after kicking the inside of the trailer the entire way. “We just got her in April and she’s not used to hauling to rodeos,” Jackson said. “We were working around the clock, probably 12 to 15 hours, to get her legs back down to size so she could run comfortably. Tiny’s attitude was, ‘Let me do my job, and that’s all I need to do.’ ”

Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo CEO Valeria Cunningham is the only Black female owner of a rodeo. She is the quiet storm, equally at ease working with the riders or speaking to the press. After her husband Lu Vason, founder of the invitational, died in 2015, she kept it going strong. She described a moment in Memphis, Tennessee, that brought tears to her eyes: “I saw a 7-year-old boy at the rodeo walking along. All of a sudden he stopped, put his little hands on his hips, his eyes as wide as saucers, and he said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! There are real Black cowboys and cowgirls!’ ”

Barrel racer Raemia Clemons enters the arena carrying the African American flag on June 13. Every Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo begins with a rider carrying the flag in celebration of the people who built this country. Clemons, who competed in the ladies steer undecorating and ladies barrel events, led the parade, which featured Hollywood stars James Pickens Jr., Obba Babatunde, Reginald T. Dorsey and Glynn Turman, all accomplished horsemen and longtime supporters of the invitational, as the official grand marshals.

The arena is dark and the ground is ablaze as the athletes competing in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo enter to fanfare and applause. There are bull riders, bareback riders, bulldoggers, ladies steer undecorating riders, calf ropers, ladies barrel riders and junior breakaway ropers, each with a story just waiting to be told. “It’s rodeo to the max,” said photographer Ivan McClellan. The Las Vegas-style production included a display of Professional Bull Riders pyrotechnics, thumping music from the Tower of Power, LED boards flashing the invitational logo and videos showing the history of Black cowboys.

Bareback rider Harold Miller of South Carolina rides a bucking bronco at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. At 63 years old, Miller is a phenomenon. “His presence in this event was incredible,” Ivan McClellan said. “Typically guys age out in their 30s because of the amount of injuries they sustain. The sport is very rough on your body, but he’s doing it into his 60s. I asked him, ‘How are you still competing at such an old age?’ and he said, ‘God.’ ”

It was 115 degrees outside the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo — record heat — but inside, the fans danced in the stands. They came from all corners of the country to witness this historic event and share in the love and joy of the invitational. “Looking at the audience, which was very diverse, and seeing people being a part of the moment was very powerful,” said invitational CEO Valeria Cunningham. “Everybody felt that no matter what color they were, they were part of this moment together as one — and that it just felt good. This was a dream come true. We are going to continue to celebrate our culture because it’s ours and nobody can take that away from us.”

Kortnee Solomon gets ready to compete in the junior breakaway roping competition. “Before I run, I like to be by myself and to think about what I am going to do in that run,” said Kortnee. After learning the sport from her father, tie-down roper Cory Solomon, the 11-year-old has no qualms about being the only girl competing in the event. “Kortnee always pushes herself and is willing to try anything because she knows what her abilities are,” said invitational CEO Valeria Cunningham.

Steer wrestler Sterling Walton (right) participates in the sport called bulldogging, where he tackles a steer from his horse and wrestles it to the ground. The “big man’s sport” was invented by legendary cowboy Bill Pickett. After the rider mounts up, his partner on horseback sets a steer loose while they are both running. The rider has to jump off his horse, land on the steer, flip it onto its side and drop it to the ground. Walton won the steer wrestling competition and champion buckle. Many of the best steer wrestlers are former football players who have mastered the art of tackling.

Ouncie Mitchell rides a bull named Romeo for a score of 76. This would be enough to win the bull riding competition and the championship buckle. After breaking his leg in 2019, Mitchell returned June 11 to compete at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “People say, ‘It’s just eight seconds,’ but it’s not just that. When you’re bull riding, it’s like being in the boxing ring. You never know what he is going to do next. I just have to move with everything the bull throws at me,” said Mitchell.

Bill Pickett Invitational CEO Valeria Cunningham (right) and Professional Bull Riding CEO Sean Gleason (left) present the championship buckle to the steer wrestling winner Sterling Walton (center). “The struggle has been real,” said Cunningham. “For the past 37 years we’ve been working to create a platform for Black cowboys and cowgirls, to educate people about how Blacks were left out of the history books in the development of the West, and inspire people to have hope for the future. I’m hoping that kids all over the U.S. will be sitting in front of the television with their parents on Juneteenth and see that Black cowboys and cowgirls do exist today.”

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, and Dazed, among others.