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Lift Every Saddle

When the Bill Pickett Rodeo comes to town, the pride rises like dust.


A cowboy at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo waving a version of the African American flag.

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Brianna Owens traveled to the rodeo from Houston.

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Jamir Graham, a high schooler from Hayward.

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A cowboy warming up.

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Mr. Theus lives on a ranch in Valley Springs and used to own an Oakland barbershop.

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Snakeskin cowboy boots.

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Cowgirl Danesha Henderson.

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The crowd at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Grounds in Castro Valley. This year’s rodeo takes place July 14 and 15.

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A cowgirl prepares to compete.

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Loyal fans at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Castro Valley.

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A survey taken at the 2017 event revealed that 90 percent of attendees had been there at least 10 times before.

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Jewell Weaver of Discovery Bay produces black western films.

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Not all of the action happens in the arena.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Sonya Hopkins
is a 55-year-old senior systems analyst for Contra Costa County. But when the second week of July rolls around, she’s a barrel racer. She’s also damn good at steer decorating—a speed event that involves tying a ribbon to the wildly swinging tail of a riled-up steer. Hopkins is a self-declared black cowgirl and a longtime competitor in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo—the country’s only touring African American rodeo company, which rides into Castro Valley for the 34th year this summer. 

“In 1995, I went to my very first Bill Pickett Rodeo and saw girls out there who looked just like me,” says Hopkins, who graduated from Pinole Valley High and grew up around horses. “And I told my mother, ‘Next year I’m going to compete in the rodeo, even if I’m just walking around the barrels.’” This will be Hopkins’s 20th year competing in it, and now she does so alongside her 16-year-old son, Cameron, whom she and his rodeo-loving father nicknamed Cowboy Cameron as a baby.

The idea for an African American rodeo staked its claim in Lu Vason’s mind back in 1977. That year, the Berkeley-raised businessman attended Wyoming’s Cheyenne Frontier Days and was immediately struck by something: There wasn’t a single black cowboy on the dirt. To Vason, this wasn’t just a diversity problem. It was a misrepresentation of history. African Americans were integral in the settling of the American West, and legendary black cowboys and cowgirls such as Nat Love, Clara Brown, and Mary Fields were heroes in their day. Vason held the first Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Denver in 1984, and in addition to competing in the traditional rodeo events, his all-black crew of cowboys and cowgirls reenacted gripping tales from the Old West that tended to be overlooked in most history books. At the center was the story of Bill Pickett, the Texas-born son of a former slave and a rodeo superstar. Pickett invented bulldogging, a now-popular event that involves riding alongside a steer, jumping onto its shoulders, and wrestling it to the ground. 

“It became a way of educating and correcting the myth that there were no African American cowboys in the West,” says Jeff Douvel of Oakland. The rodeo’s regional coordinator, he’s been working with the show for 32 years, although now, at age 70, his competition days are behind him. “It’s a hard, grueling, dangerous job,” he says. “It’s not something you can fake—a person trying to rope a steer can not get their finger out of the way when they dally their rope around the horn of the saddle, and when that steer snaps that rope, your finger can literally get cut right off.”

But the rewards outweigh the risks for the riders—and even the risks are admittedly part of the draw for the nearly 6,000 fans who fill the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Grounds in Castro Valley each July. “You would have thought by this age, 2018, rodeoing would have been a thing of the past, but it’s actually growing,” Douvel says. “That’s because it’s a culture, it’s a history. The settling of the western frontier was not any small feat.”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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