Lu Vason, Bill Pickett Black Rodeo Founder, and the African American Cowboy Legacy (1861-1900)

Lu Vason was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and he grew up in Berkley, California. He began his working career as a hairdresser and barber; later he became a music promoter. Vason promoted groups like the Pointer Sisters and The Whispers.


When Vason moved to Denver, Colorado in 1977, he toured the Black American West Museum in Denver and discovered an abundance of material about African American cowboys, in addition to the bandits, lawmen, soldiers, and ordinary black cattlemen who were a vital part of the region’s history. In 1980, Vason visited the Annual Frontier Day in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and he was intrigued by the rodeo, but was perplexed by the lack of African American participation.


In 1984, Lu Vason decided to do something about the lack of black involvement in our cowboy history, so he founded the Bill Pickett Rodeo Show, billed as the ‘Greatest Show on Dirt.’ Vason’s motivation for creating the all black rodeo was to bring our largely forgotten black American cowboy history to life. He wanted to educate people on the black west, as well as to build a successful business. Vason said that more people were familiar with Will Rogers, but few had ever heard of Bill Pickett. Before Bill Pickett, there was Nat Love, and Boris Iskaid, who was the African American cowboy whose life was portrayed as Josh Deets in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove.


African American cowboys participated in the moving of herds of cattle from one grazing area to another. In between herding, black cowboys fought off Native Americans, dealt with hostile weather conditions, and racism. For relaxation they amused themselves by dare devil riding, roping, stunts and shooting.


In the 1860s while Texans and other southerners were fighting the Civil War, African Americans cowboys were tending to cattle and the land, and developing their skills of breading herds, pulling calves out of the mud, and releasing longhorn steers caught in the brush. Those skills were in great demand in the post war era. After the Civil War ended, ranchers returned home to find their herds were lost or out of control. The invention of barbed wire in 1867 helped to solve many of the cattle problems due to more ease of containment. After the Emancipation Proclamation, white cattle bosses were left without free labor from the enslaved people, and they had to pay the black cowboys who were in great demand as ranchers began sending cattle to northern states.


During the massive cattle drives, before the railroads began hauling cattle, black cowboys were barred from eating or staying in most places and each day they faced a hostile environment, but they earned the respect from their crews as well as their enemies.


Bill Pickett, the African American cowboy that Lu Vason named his rodeo after, was born on December 5, 1870. He was the first African American cowboy inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. The second of thirteen children, of African American and Cherokee heritage, Pickett became a ranch hand and an expert in bulldogging. His method was modeled after the way bulldogs bring cattle down; like the bulldog, he bit the lip of the steer, and then he would fall backward. Bill performed under the name ‘the Dusky Demon’ but due to racism, he often entered contests as a Comanche instead of African American and Comanche.


Bill Pickett appeared in two movies, ‘The Bulldogger’ and ‘The Crimson Skull.’ After retirement from the Wild West shows, Bill Pickett was kicked in the head by a bronco, which resulted in a coma, and he died on April 2, 1932.


According to the Smithsonian, one in four cowboys were African American; most were unsung. Thanks to the creative efforts of Lu Vason, and the Bill Pickett Rodeo, the myth that there were no blacks involved in the development of the West, or in rodeo culture, has been exposed. Today information about black cowboys is available to everyone.


*Image retrieved from

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