Last Tuesday, on a typically blazing-hot Texas day, tens of thousands of people descended on downtown Houston, marching from Discovery Green park to City Hall in response to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. At one point, a group of about 40 black men and women broke through the mass on horseback, their animals gleaming in the sun as they trotted their way to the plaza.
Footage shared on social media that day captured the moment when these modern-day cowboys and cowgirls led their horses up a grassy rise to look down at the crowd, lifting their hands high in a Black Power fist, to the tune of the affirming whoops and hollers of their fellow demonstrators. This horse-riding assembly, most wearing masks and shirts screen-printed with Floyd’s face, was organized by Houston music-label executive Jas Prince, who is perhaps best known outside of Texas for having discovered the rapper Drake on MySpace in 2006.
Prince recruited his friends Lynn and Nakia Price, the owners of the famous Turkey Leg Hut, in Houston’s Third Ward, to help organize the group. For Lynn, who started riding horses when he was 18, this was more than just a protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement—he and Floyd grew up together in Houston, so he wanted to do something special to honor his slain friend.
If the frenzied social-media response to the images of black horse-riders at the protest is any indication, many people are still shocked to learn that a healthy cowboy culture reverberates throughout black communities. There are black trail-riding organizations, riding clubs for black youth, and even black rodeos. Last weekend, a few days after they appeared at the protest, the black trail-riding club Non-Stop Riderz hosted their annual weekend campout in a small town about 60 miles outside of the city.
For Lynn, this was more than just a protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement—he and Floyd grew up together, so he wanted to do something special to honor his slain friend.
Marcus and Cassandra Johnson founded the Non-Stop Riderz in 2016, and the group has grown to more than 100 members. This march felt “near and dear” to the Johnsons. Like the Prices, they knew Floyd when he lived in Houston. Marcus, who started riding more than 15 years ago, rode the family’s horse, Sunshine, in the protest.
“We wanted to be known for something other than our trail rides,” Cassandra told me. “We want to show people that we stand for something.”
Cassandra told me about a painful encounter her husband had with the police just days before the protest, and she spoke about the daily discussions she has with her 17-year-old son to remind him how to interact with the police if he happens to get pulled over. “Enough is enough,” she said.
The legacy of today’s black cowboy stretches at least as far back as the 19th century, when enslaved people, who had been brought to Texas by their opportunity-seeking white masters, were forced to become expert cattle tenders. Following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, ranchers struggled to manage their growing cattle herds and move them up north without the enslaved labor to which they were accustomed. Toward the end of the century, the introduction of fencing on ranches to corral cattle and the expansion of the railroad network reduced available work, so black cowboys adapted their skills for the spectator sport that evolved into the booming rodeo tradition of today.
As the home of one of the world’s largest rodeo-and-livestock shows, which attracts millions of people each year, Houston regularly embraces public displays of cowboy culture for amusement and leisure. But for the cowboys at last week’s march, this protest on horseback was not about entertainment. In an interview with ABC News, Nakia, who rode with the group, said, “You think about everything that a horse stands for. A horse is about freedom.” As protesters around the world call for the liberation of black people, black cowboys are putting in work for the movement by commanding the public’s attention with their version of freedom and challenging the narrative about the spaces black people are entitled to occupy.
At a demonstration a couple of days before last Tuesday’s march, Houston police on horseback were deployed, and one knocked a protester to the ground. So when black cowboys and cowgirls rode days later as part of the resistance, their presence was a striking act of defiance and a stark contrast to the police’s mounted patrol. As Lil Nas X, the current face of black cowboys in pop culture, so aptly put it, “The time has arrived” for our country to recognize the power of the black cowboy.
Katie Nodjimbadem is a writer who lives in Brooklyn