Fred Whitfield and the Black Cowboys of Rodeo

The champion calf-roper is a legend and an outlier

The time to beat was 7.4 seconds. Six cowboys had preceded Fred Whitfield in this early heat of the calf-roping event at the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day extravaganza that attracts a million visitors and the best professional rodeo competitors on the planet.

He sat astride Jewel, his horse, in a chute on the side of the 25,000-seat, open-air stadium. Beside him, in another chute, was a calf that had been raised for this moment. In a few seconds, the chutes would open, with the calf getting the briefest of head starts. If all went well, Whitfield would give chase, lasso the animal, dismount, flip it to the ground, and tie three of its legs together with the small rope that now was clenched in his teeth. All in the time it takes most of us to tie our shoes.

But first the emcee introduced Whitfield. “There are stars, there are superstars, and then there are legends,” he bellowed. As Whitfield’s name flashed upon the stadium’s screens, he was met with thunderous applause — much louder than any of the previous competitors received. And Whitfield is a legend. He’s won more than $3 million and eight world championships (“gold buckles”) competing on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour, the National Football League of rodeos. He’s also won the calf-roping event at the Stampede three times. Then the emcee ribbed Whitfield: “What is he now, 75? 68?” Actually, Whitfield was only 49 — he turned 50 the next month — but that’s practically geriatric in the punishing world of rodeo.

Left unsaid was another distinction. The Calgary Stampede features five men’s rodeo events — calf roping, bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback riding, and steer wrestling — and one women’s competition, barrel racing. There were 120 competitors, and only two were African-American — Whitfield and another calf roper and fellow Texan Cory Solomon.

The Stampede isn’t an outlier in professional rodeo. Not surprisingly, both Whitfield and Solomon say their paths have been made more difficult by the overwhelming whiteness of their sport and the racism, both overt and subtle, that accompanies it.

As the gates opened, the calf sprinted away. Whitfield and his horse were right behind and the lasso found its mark. A second or two later, Whitfield, a powerfully built 6-foot-2, had the calf on the dirt. The roping was assured, and Whitfield jumped up and spread his arms like a linebacker who’s just sacked the quarterback. His time, 6.9 seconds, was the best of day, which entitled Whitfield to a victory lap and another long ovation. “I’ve always been received by the fans as well as anyone in the sport,” Whitfield said. For less than seven seconds of work, Whitfield won $5,500 and a chance to advance to the finals.

The cowboy is an iconic American figure and in popular mythology almost always a white one. For every Django or Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman’s character in Unforgiven) there are hundreds of white gunslingers. But of the “estimated thirty-five thousand cowboys that worked the ranches and rode the trails between 1866 and 1895, researchers have calculated that the number of black cowboys ranged from five thousand to nine thousand, with the high number representing 25 percent,” wrote Tricia Martineau Wagner, an author of several books about the West, in Black Cowboys of the Old West.

As the nation’s railroad network expanded, long cattle drives became unnecessary, and cowboys turned to rodeos to show off the skills that once had more practical applications. Several towns lay claim to being the birthplace of rodeo — there’s no academic consensus — but by the end of the 19th century, rodeos were common throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and various western states. They started out as part of grander Wild West frolics, interspersing events such as bronc riding with shooting displays and Indian raid re-enactments. One of the few early African-American participants was Bill Pickett, who is credited with creating what became known in modern rodeo as steer wrestling.

Chris Byrd, 24, holds on to a bucking bull during the bull riding competition at the Bill Pickett Rodeo.

Katrina Britney Davis for The Undefeated

Pickett was born near Austin, Texas, in 1870 or 1871, one of 13 children. His father and uncles, former slaves, were cattlemen and small farmers. One day, the young Pickett was watching some dogs that ranchers used to help corral their herd. “On a day in 1881 that was to have unforeseen potential, he happened to notice a bulldog holding a cow motionless by her upper lip,” wrote Pickett biographer Bailey C. Hanes. “A few days, later Bill walked up to a calf and grabbed it by the ears with his hands. The animal squirmed and bawled, trying to free itself. Bill then fastened his teeth on the calf’s upper lip, turned loose of its ears, and, with a flip of his body, threw it to the ground.”

Pickett went on to demonstrate the technique, called bulldogging, across the continent, including at the 1905 Calgary Stampede. (Modern steer wrestlers don’t bite the steers.) Pickett earned about $10 a week working for the 101 Ranch, a white-owned, Oklahoma-based touring show, and was billed as “the Dusky Demon.” He died in 1932, two weeks after receiving a kick from a horse.

Rodeo evolved from being part of Wild West variety shows to a modern sport by the end of World War II as the two biggest rodeo outfits merged into a single association that would be renamed the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in 1975. Unlike professional baseball, in which team owners agreed not to sign African-American players, national rodeo organizations were never overtly segregated. But Jim Crow laws ensured that African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, including Native Americans, were unwelcome. Rodeos often posted signs reading “no dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans,” according to Gender, Whiteness, and Power in Rodeo, a book by University of Wyoming professor Tracey Patton and rodeo competitor Sally Schedlock.

African-Americans organized their own rodeos and formed the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association in 1947. Later, with the end of Jim Crow, a few African-Americans participated in PRCA events. Myrtis Dightman, a Crockett, Texas, native, was one of the pioneers, becoming the first African-American to appear in the PRCA world finals in 1964. Charlie Sampson, who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, became the first African-American to win a world championship when he took home the gold buckle for bull riding in 1982. At the time, the PRCA had only six African-American members.

“A lot of the early blacks in rodeo were bull riders,” said Cleo Hearn, 77, who joined the PRCA in 1959, five years after he competed in his first rodeo, an African-American event in his home state of Oklahoma. One reason is that it was cheaper: You didn’t have to own a horse and a trailer to transport it.

Hearn rode bulls, too, but he had better success as a calf roper. Bull riding is a judged sport and Hearn said he knew he wasn’t going to receive fair treatment. “The judges were all white,” he said. “You could ride the baddest bull in the world, and you weren’t going to win first. Sometimes I knew I had the best ride, but I ended up only finishing third or fourth.”

In calf roping, however, cowboys race against a clock. And while there may have been occasional timing shenanigans — “That’s happened not just to black cowboys but all cowboys,” Hearn said — he believed that the odds weren’t stacked against him.

In Calgary, Whitfield was competing in the calf-roping contest’s second bracket or “flight,” which began on a Tuesday in mid-July, midway through the Stampede. Each flight ran four days, and the 10 best cowboys overall would advance to the final day of competition.

On the second day of Whitfield’s flight, Solomon took the victory lap with a time of 6.7 seconds, only 0.4 seconds off the Stampede record. Whitfield finished a respectable fourth in 7.8 seconds, earning $2,500, but he scolded himself afterward. His tying didn’t go smoothly. On his first attempt, one of the calf’s legs slipped out and he wasted a valuable second. “I just took my eye off that rear leg,” he said.

Cory Solomon ties up his calf during the tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Solomon is the 2012 Calgary Stampede tie-down roping champion and is only one of two African Americans in professional rodeo.

Cory Solomon ties up his calf during the tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Solomon is the 2012 Calgary Stampede tie-down roping champion.

Jason Franson for The Undefeated

While Whitfield was among the most physically imposing of the calf ropers, Solomon, 26, was the slightest. He stands 5-feet-9 and has the build of an undersized basketball guard, which is what he was in his Texas high school before he left the team to devote his attention to rodeo. The calves, which are 6 to 9 months old, weigh between 190 and 270 pounds.

“Being big and having technique is great,” Solomon said. “But a lot of the big guys don’t have the best technique.” He credited his horse, Spook (so named because it doesn’t get frightened by a big crowd), with doing most of the work. “As long as you have a good horse and the horse is pulling the calf, then it’s all technique.”

Like Whitfield, Solomon had won the Stampede event before, in 2012. When I asked them to explain their good starts this year, they invited me to return to the Stampede grounds at 6 the following morning. “Don’t be late,” said Whitfield, who has the stern tone of a headmaster.

Whitfield and Solomon stayed on the grounds, sleeping in their trailers, which include traveling compartments for their horses. Unlike a pro tennis player, who can fly from tournament to tournament with a racquet bag, cowboys can’t check a horse on American Airlines. So there are long hours of driving and considerable travel expenses associated with being a professional calf roper. A reliable, powerful pickup truck costs about $70,000, the traveling rig costs about the same, and gas bills add up quickly. Sponsorships can help defray these expenses. But a cowboy has to compete well just to break even. “You have to make the national finals to make a good profit,” Solomon said.

There was a light sprinkle when I arrived punctually at the Stampede grounds the next day. This morning, like the previous two, the two cowboys were going to drive about 40 miles to the cattle ranch of Stampede subcontractor Manerd Bird, an American expatriate who provides the calves for the calf-roping competition.

Cory Solomon ,left, and Fred Whitfield take a break in the barns after their tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and Solomon is the 2012 Calgary Stampede tie-down roping champion.

Cory Solomon ,left, and Fred Whitfield take a break in the barns after their tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and Solomon is the 2012 Calgary Stampede tie-down roping champion.

Jason Franson for The Undefeated

Competition rules barred the cowboys from mounting horses there, but they could rope the calves from the ground, tie their legs, note their tendencies, and help Bird select 10 for the day’s competition. A cowboy can’t pick his particular calf — there’s a random drawing before each day’s event — but knowing the tendencies of all 10 is a competitive advantage, Whitfield said. So it’s surprising that on the previous day, Whitfield and Solomon were the only competitors to show up. And on Thursday they were accompanied by only one other competitor, Idaho’s Matt Shiozawa.

“Some guys like to sleep in,” Whitfield said dismissively. “Just like with anything else, preparation is the key to success. And no one out here is going to outwork me.”

On the drive to Bird’s ranch, Whitfield tuned his truck’s Sirius XM radio to Country 56. He sang along to Easton Corbin’s romantic ballad Are You With Me: I want to dance by the water ’neath the Mexican sky / Drink some margaritas by a string of blue lights.

After his good start at the Stampede, Whitfield seemed confident that he’d advance to the semifinals. And if he won it all, he said, he’d consider retiring — going out on top. Whitfield could still beat guys half his age, but life on the road was exhausting. “I’d be lying if I said all the miles I put in doesn’t take something out of me,” he said.

Along with several other stars of the sport, he was helping start a new rodeo circuit, the Elite Rodeo Athletes tour, with the intent of giving athletes greater control of scheduling and organization.

Also, Whitfield has a wife and two teenage daughters. He’d already cut back on his schedule. “This year, I’ve competed at maybe 20 events, while most guys have been to 50,” he said. He’d been spending more time on his small ranch in Hockley, near Houston, training horses and selling them. Whitfield painted a picture of a satisfying domestic life, and a sharp contrast with the tribulations of his early years.

Fred Whitfield rides his horse to the stampede grounds for warm up before competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and one of two African Americans in professional rodeo.

Fred Whitfield rides his horse to the stampede grounds for warm up before competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada.

Jason Franson for The Undefeated

Whitfield grew up in Cypress, Texas, 25 miles northwest of Houston. His family was so poor that his mother, Marie, gave up two of her five children for adoption. It was a violent household. “Growing up, I thought everybody lived like we did — but once I got out and looked back, I saw I was wrong,” Whitfield wrote in his 2013 autobiography, Gold Buckles Don’t Lie. “Most families don’t try to kill each other as much as they did at my house.”

Whitfield’s father, Willie, was a philanderer who drank too much and beat his wife. On two occasions, Marie shot Willie after he beat her, and both times he survived. When Fred was 10 or 11, his father was convicted of killing a man over a woman they were both seeing. “When he finally went away to prison, it was like thank God he’s out of here,” Whitfield recalled in his autobiography.

Marie worked as a cleaning lady for a wealthy white neighbor, Joanne Moffitt, and Fred spent a lot of time at the Moffitt house hanging out with Joanne and Don Moffitt’s son, Roy, who introduced him to roping. The boys would spend long hours roping dogs, chickens, and cats — anything that moved. Roy and Fred competed in youth rodeos using the Moffitt family’s horses, and when Roy Moffitt, who is seven years older than Whitfield, stopped competing to work in the family oil business, he lent Whitfield his horses, truck, and trailer and paid his entry fees.

“Roy and his family were great to me,” Whitfield told me. “When I couldn’t rub two rusty nickels together, he gave me an open checkbook.”

By the time Whitfield graduated from high school in 1986, he was earning a decent living training horses for a rancher. He was also doing well in amateur rodeos, including on the national Bill Pickett circuit, which was founded in 1984 for African-American cowboys. In 1990, Whitfield started competing in PRCA events and became only the second rookie to qualify for the national finals. The following year he won his first gold buckle.

While there were many scrapes with his white peers, the lasting physical scar — a long slash across his left cheek — of Whitfield’s time in rodeo has nothing to do with racism. He was at a Bill Pickett event outside of Oakland, California, and got into a fight outside a bar with another black man, who drew a knife and sliced Whitfield’s face. Whitfield, who later received more than 30 stitches, returned the favor with a tire tool and spent a night in jail.

But Whitfield was often the target of racist taunts, said Roy Moffitt, who now lives about 10 miles from Whitfield. “His rookie year, he’d call me up in tears,” Moffitt said. “I remember he was roping at the big rodeo in San Angelo [in central Texas] and the crowd was yelling N-word this and N-word that,” Moffitt said, contradicting what Whitfield had told me about his consistent adoration from the crowds.

Other cowboys would taunt Whitfield into fighting. At one rodeo in Las Vegas in the 2000s, he returned to the horse stalls one morning to find that someone had cut off part of his mare’s tail. After a fight with three white bull riders who professed to have connections to the mob, Whitfield took on bodyguards to accompany him to the 1996 national finals, which he won.

“The harassment he faced forced Fred to grow up fast, and that’s what he did,” Moffitt said. “He doesn’t take s— from anyone anymore.”

Whitfield told me his dating choices contributed to his troubles. Most of his romantic relationships have been with white women, including his wife, Cassie, whom he married in 2000. “I think that rubbed some folks the wrong way,” he said.

But Whitfield was defiant and remains so. “There’s a lot of folks in the rodeo world that are jealous of me and don’t talk to me,” he said. “But that doesn’t do anything to me. Really, it just fuels me. Any chance I get to kick their a– in competition, I’m going to do it.”

On Thursday, Solomon took a victory lap for the second straight day after roping his calf in 7.2 seconds, while Whitfield’s time of 7.9 seconds secured second place. Both men had liked the calves they drew. Meanwhile, the rest of the field was sloppy. Tuf Cooper’s calf kicked and he gave up on tying its legs. Logan Hofer’s lasso missed its mark. Two other cowboys also recorded “no-times.” Shiozawa finished out of the money with a time of 9.0 seconds. And the Stampede’s most decorated cowboy, Trevor Brazile, who has a record 23 gold buckles, earned his first winnings of the event by tying for third place with a time of 8.5 seconds.

Fred Whitfield wears his 2002 world champion tie-down roper belt buckle, at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and one of two African Americans in professional rodeo.

Fred Whitfield wears his 2002 world champion tie-down roper belt buckle, at the Calgary Stampede in Canada.

Jason Franson for The Undefeated

In a field this talented, Solomon said, a lot came down to the draw. “Out here, you’ll get half of the calves that you can’t win on, but you can still learn,” he said. “You can be roping good but not drawing good, which means you’re not winning. When you draw good, you still have to be your best. You draw bad and you’re pretty much done.”

Like Whitfield, Solomon was exposed to rodeos at a young age. His family runs a cattle business in Prairie View, Texas, and provides calves to rodeos throughout the state. “I started roping when I was 4 and tying down when I was 6,” he said. He’s good friends with Cooper, whose father, Roy, is a retired calf-roping multichampion, and said he hadn’t experienced the same degree of racial taunts that Whitfield faced a generation earlier.

Still, he noticed things. “You’ll be at a rodeo, and there will be courtesy golf carts taking contestants around,” Solomon said. “I’ll be waiting for 20 minutes, but you’ll have the drivers just standing there next to Tuf waiting to see if he wants to go somewhere.”

A larger frustration was sponsorships, Solomon said. “I have a couple of great sponsors, but not as many as guys like Tuf,” he said. “Some guys get a free truck and trailer deal, but I don’t have one yet. And other guys get free horses so their owners can say, ‘Trevor Brazile rode my horse.’ That’s nothing against those guys, who are among the best in our sport. But there are some guys who don’t even make it to the national finals, and they’re getting better sponsorship deals than me. If my skin color was different, I’d have more deals.”

Whitfield agreed that for today’s African-American cowboys the economic demands are more daunting obstacles than overt instances of racism. “The world’s changed and the rodeo world’s changed along with it, though there’s still a long ways to go, of course, as we see every day in the news,” he said, referencing recent police shootings of African-Americans. Many of Whitfield’s white peers grew up on ranches and had easy access to livestock and equipment. For young African-American men with few resources, it’s difficult to gain a foothold in the sport, he said. Few can afford to pay $40,000 for a quarter horse — an American breed that excels at short sprints — as Whitfield did a few weeks before the Stampede.

In rodeo, talent alone doesn’t get you far, Whitfield said. “If you have a half-a–ed horse and a half-a–ed truck, you’re going to get half-a–ed results.”

Before arriving in Calgary, I attended a Bill Pickett event at the Rowell Ranch rodeo grounds in Castro Valley, California, about 20 miles southeast of Oakland. This was the same event where Whitfield received his nasty scar at a nearby bar more than two decades ago. On this weekend, though, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more jovial. All the contestants were African-American, as were all but a handful of spectators, who each paid $26 for admission.

Anthony Elliot chases a horse running free after the bare backing contest at the Bill Pickett Rodeo.

Katrina Britney Davis for The Undefeated

Many of the contestants were affiliated with California amateur associations. Sam Styles, who was riding in the team relay event, is a member of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, which hosts an annual parade through West Oakland in October. “I grew up in Oakland, but now live in Hayward [not far from Rowell Ranch], where I give riding lessons,” he said. “Most of us here aren’t professionals, but we love horses.”

One of the few pros at the Bill Pickett rodeo was Chris Byrd, 24, who took home $1,200 for winning the bull-riding event. Byrd grew up in Compton, an area in Los Angeles County not known today for horses. But when Griffith D. Compton donated his land to the city in 1889, he stipulated that some be reserved for agricultural use. A vestige of that century-old provision was a stable at Figueroa and 131st Street known as The Hill. As a teenager, Byrd found work there as a stablehand. The stables burned down in 2012, but by then Byrd had relocated 60 miles north of Sacramento to work for Flying U Rodeo Company, which produces rodeos throughout California.

“Sometimes, I can work and compete at the same event, but usually I’ll work one weekend and then go compete somewhere out of state,” he said. While bull riders don’t have to tote horses from event to event, Byrd said, it’s difficult to meet his traveling expenses. He hasn’t sniffed the PRCA top-50 rankings. “Sponsorships are hard to come by,” he said.

C.J Demery, 20, looks on as the tie-down roping event takes place at the Bill Pickett Rodeo.

Katrina Britney Davis for The Undefeated

But events such as the Bill Pickett rodeos aren’t necessarily intended to launch professional stars, said Odest Logan, a longtime attendee. Logan grew up in West Oakland, California, where he would watch rodeos on TV. After working for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for 37 years, Logan retired and founded Spurred Up, a nonprofit that introduces African-American youths in Oakland to equestrianism and black cowboy heritage, four years ago. Logan and other volunteers visit schools, conduct field trips to ranches, and organized a youth riding team that was competing in the weekend’s rodeo.

“There’s a lot more jobs in this industry than just becoming a professional cowboy,” he said. He pointed to a former high school student, Brandyn Hartfield, who joined Spurred Up when he was 17. “He said he wanted to learn about horses, so we gave him a shovel and pointed to the stalls,” Logan said. Hartfield saved his money and put himself through Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, and now works along the Central Coast as a farrier while occasionally competing in pro rodeos.

Cleo Hearn had much the same thing in mind when he began producing rodeos in Texas. In 1995, he launched his Cowboys of Color circuit to “educate while it entertains,” he said. And while he admires champions like Whitfield, Hearn points to his own path as the basis for a more stable livelihood. While he competed in professional rodeos, Hearn, a college graduate and Army veteran who was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Presidential Honor Guard during the Kennedy administration, also had a day job. He worked in Ford Motor Co.’s Dallas office for more than 30 years.

Harrel Williams, 4, competes in the barrel racing competition at the Bill Pickett Rodeo.

Katrina Britney Davis for The Undefeated

“You can’t rodeo forever,” he said. “And while I like to help African-American cowboys make it to the pros, I also want to encourage them to go to college, too.

“It’s tough to make it in pro rodeo, and even if you do you can’t do it forever,” Hearn said. “Charlie Sampson was a great bull-riding champion and now he works construction. Fred Whitfield has won eight world championships and several million dollars, but when you factor in all the years and expenses, that’s not as much as it seems. What’s he going to do after he retires?”

Whitfield wasn’t thinking about retirement on the last day of the Stampede. Both he and Solomon were in the semifinals, along with eight others. Four would advance to the final. The champion would walk away with $100,000 on top of any prizes he had won earlier in the competition.

Solomon finished fifth. Though he would blame his technique, it was hard not to conclude that his stature played a part. His lasso found its mark, but when he reached the calf’s side, he struggled to deposit it on the muddy ground and lost precious seconds. His time of 12.5 seconds was 2.0 seconds behind the fourth-place finisher, Utah’s Clint Robinson.

Whitfield finished in 9.5 seconds — not spectacular, but good enough for third place and a spot in the final. Analysts for Canadian Broadcasting Company Sports praised Whitfield’s experience: After noticing that a few riders had missed their mark with their lassos, Whitfield had run behind the calf for longer than usual to ensure an accurate throw.

Fred Whitfield rides out of the shoot during the tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and one of two African Americans in professional rodeo.

Fred Whitfield rides out of the shoot during the tie-down roping competition at the Calgary Stampede in Canada.

Jason Franson for The Undefeated

The final began at 4 p.m. with a steady rain further muddying the grounds. Given the conditions, Shane Hanchey’s opening time of 7.9 seconds was impressive. “I’m from Louisiana, I’m from the bayou,” he said after the event. “We’ve roped in mud my whole life.”

Robinson bowed out after failing to land his lasso. Oklahoma’s Ryan Jarrett had finished first in the semifinal with a time of 7.6 seconds, but battling the mud cost him and he finished in 9.7. Whitfield took second place with a time of 8.9 seconds.

“I would have loved it to have been dry,” Whitfield said. “The last two or three times I’ve made the final four here, it’s been absolutely flooded. I used to love competing in these conditions. The worse the conditions, the better. But I think that’s another thing that changes with age.”

Still, he took home $25,000 for being runner-up, plus another $12,500 in previous days’ winnings.

After Calgary, Solomon had an excellent summer, winning his first major PRCA event of the year in late August, which cemented his invitation to the national finals to be held Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas.

Whitfield won’t be there. The Elite Rodeo Athletes World Championship is scheduled for Nov. 12-13 in Dallas, and Whitfield will be there supporting the new group.

Had he won the Stampede, he might have retired, Whitfield told me. I don’t believe him, and I don’t think he really believed it either.

“I love to rope,” he said. “It’s something I’m addicted to and have been since I was a little kid. If I stopped tomorrow and walked away cold turkey, there’s no way I’d be happy.”

Even as he enters his 50s, Whitfield couldn’t picture himself apart from the sport. He tried to imagine selling his ranch and buying a house in town. “I’d be fooling myself,” he said. “I’d go crazy.”

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.