February 24, 2024
Bill Pickett Rodeo celebrates 40 years at Western stock show


Margo Wade-LaDrew’s voice tips into reverence when she talks about the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo of Champions, which took place on Jan. 15 at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.  

Wade-LaDrew is the national sponsorship and development director of the only Black rodeo in the world.  It’s named after Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy renowned for inventing the sport of steer wrestling. (His technique for subduing a steer involved grabbing its horns, twisting its head and biting its nose or lower lip, according to the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.) His namesake rodeo was founded in 1984, by entertainment producer Lu Vason who is credited with assembling the group that would become The Pointer Sisters. 

Today, the rodeo’s producer-promoter is Valerie Howard-Cunningham, Vason’s widow and the sole Black woman owner and promoter of a touring rodeo circuit. And it’s populated by Black cowboys and cowgirls, from the bronc riders to the barrel racers to the “peewee mutton busters” invited to grab onto a sheep’s wooly coat and hang on like they mean it.

That last part is important “because for so long, Black cowboys and cowgirls were overlooked,” says Howard-Cunningham.  “So Lu created the Bill Pickett to address the injustice that they weren’t allowed to showcase their skills on the platforms they should have been on.” The circuit has six stops: Denver, Memphis, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the finals in Washington D.C. 

Young participants prepare to take the stage for a ceremony at the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo at the National Western Stock Show Coliseum. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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What most people don’t realize, says Wade-LaDrew, “is that Bill Pickett is the longest-running Black family touring event ever created. Before the rodeo, there was only the Ringling Brothers circus and that wasn’t diverse. What Lu created 40 years ago was a traveling family event that gave Black people something to look forward to every year.”  

These days, “we have four to five generations of families involved in Bill Pickett and that’s not going to go away,” Howard-Cunningham added. “They’ve raised their kids, grandkids and great grandkids in rodeo, teaching them the skills of horsemanship, taking care of horses and developing riding and event skills. Kids that are brought up in this rodeo world, they love it. I have one young contestant, he’s 14, and I asked him why do you do this? He said because there’s an opportunity for me to make history that nobody else has. When you hear that you know what we’re doing in our rodeo is having an impact in society, creating a foundation for generations to come.” 

LEFT: Calf roping participants compete Jan. 15 at the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo. RIGHT: Spectators and participants watch bull riding from a monitor. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

ABOVE: Calf roping participants compete Jan. 15 at the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo. BELOW: Spectators and participants watch bull riding from a monitor. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado Sun photographer Olivia Sun captured images of the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo, which Wade-LaDrew said 7,500 “majority Black people” attended. 

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“We’ve been doing the MLK rodeo for 18 years,” she added. “It’s a special tribute to Dr. King and his accomplishments because of all he wanted for unity and justice for people. We want everybody to embrace our unique background and celebrate the strength found in our diversity. Dr. King teaches us that our differences should be bridges.”

Junior barrel racing winner, Zoey Wilburd of Austin, Ark., competes Jan. 15, 2024, at the MLK, Jr. African American Heritage Rodeo at the National Western Stock Show Coliseum.

LEFT: Kortnee Solomon and Paris Wildburd watch breakaway roping. RIGHT: Sadie Jackson of Centennial, Colo., competes in barrel racing. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

ABOVE: Kortnee Solomon and Paris Wildburd watch breakaway roping. BELOW: Sadie Jackson of Centennial, Colo., competes in barrel racing. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Barrel racer Denesha Henderson, right, bundles up her kids following the rodeo. Henderson’s parents and brother have participated since it was founded in 1984, and she looks forward to introducing her daughters. “I’m shocked by how much people still don’t know about black cowboys and the history itself — and the fact that there are truly cowboys of all kinds at the rodeo,” Henderson said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.