COMPTON, Calif. – Brianna Noble was impossible to miss when she first appeared among the throngs of protesters in the crowded streets of Oakland, Calif., at the end of May. Riding her horse Dapper Dan, with a Black Lives Matter sign draped on the horse’s right side, she drew gasps from the demonstrators surrounding her.
Noble founded a youth riding organization named Mulatto Meadows, which provides horseback riding lessons for young people of color. She is also the spark that has galvanized hundreds of other black cowboys and cowgirls around the country to join in the protests over the killing of George Floyd and against police violence and racism.
A few days after Noble’s solo ride went viral, at least 30 black cowboys rode during a demonstration in Houston. They wore T-shirts with Floyd’s face on them. Most of them belong to the Nonstop Riders, an urban trail-riding club in Houston’s Third Ward.
And in Compton, Calif., a group of black men and women known as the Compton Cowboys led a peaceful protest through the streets with Mayor Aja Brown. As hundreds of people marched alongside, the cowboys rode with their fists raised in the air, yelling, “No justice, no peace,” as the music of Kendrick Lamar, also from Compton, blared in the background.
Randy Hook, one of the Compton Cowboys, saddled his horse that day for a larger cause, he said: “I could cry, and I never imagined anything like this. We’re making our family proud, our ’hood proud, and our city proud.”
Keiara Wade, the only woman in the Compton Cowboys, expressed similar emotions.
“These horses feel whatever we feel, and they are hurting right now because we are hurting right now, too,” Wade said. “There is so much love and unity within the black cowboy and cowgirl community. We’re just trying to bring that energy to these marches in a peaceful way.”
The presence of black cowboys and cowgirls at the recent protests is a reclaiming of sorts of the traditional role of mounted riders in demonstrations in urban communities.
Historically, horses have been used by elite military units and law enforcement as a way to show authority, their visibility, height and commanding nature a symbol of power.
That black horse riders exist in these metropolitan cities, however, should not come as a surprise — 1 of 4 cowboys during the 19th century was of African-American descent.
Many of the black men and women who have appeared in the recent marches are the descendants of black people who fled the Jim Crow South after the Civil War in search of jobs and opportunities. Black men and women found work on ranches and farms and rode on cattle drives from Texas to California, where they became known for their daring and fearless riding styles.
Like the mounted demonstrators of today, the black cowboys of the past challenged the traditional idea of what a horse rider could look like. Some, like Nat Love and John Ware, were enshrined in the history books for their rodeo feats. But many more of their names have been forgotten.
The Compton Cowboys grew out of a group of 10 friends who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s — one of the city’s most violent and chaotic eras.
They learned about horses on Richland Farms, an agricultural community in the heart of Compton. Many of them have talked about what it means to be a black cowboy in one of the world’s most stigmatized communities and how horses provide salvation from past trauma and safety from police violence.
Each member of the group describes interactions with the police differently. The horses, the cowboys say, are a form of armor against a police department that has been criticized for excessive violence since the 1980s.
“The world treats us way different when we’re on our horses,” said Anthony Harris, 38. “I feel safe and grateful that I have my horse at a time like now.”
The Compton Cowboys motto, “Streets raised us, horses saved us,” has become a proud declaration. Riding horses, the cowboys say, also provides healing from trauma, anxiety, depression and other lingering effects from some of the violence they have experienced.
The Compton Cowboys, however, as this past week has shown, are far from an exception. Black cowboys and cowgirls exist in other major cities across the country. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, black horse-riding communities are a staple in city folklore and identity. The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia is a century-old group that has been the subject of several documentaries. Oakland, Houston and Atlanta are also home to black urban horse-riding communities.
The black cowboy and cowgirl communities share a similar code and creed. They are guided by a way of life that involves a supreme love for the animals they tend and an appreciation for the ground they ride on.
But being a black cowboy also comes with its own challenges. At the end of the day, many said, facing discrimination in a primarily white rodeo circuit and combating societal stereotypes about African-Americans can be exhausting.
Before this week, black cowboys had made their way back into popular culture with the explosion of Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” in 2018. They have also been helped by Texas-born artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Solange who promote cowboy and cowgirl culture.
But black cowboys have always been an integral part of the American experience. Through bouts of discrimination and structural inequities and now the death of Floyd, one thing has remained consistent: Black cowboys have never stopped riding.