Timeless photos offer a rare portrait of the jubilant, vibrant, vital, nearly hidden, and now all-but-vanished world of small-town Black rodeos.
Long before Americans began to officially commemorate Juneteenth, in the heat of East Texas, saddles were being cinched, buckles shined, and lassoes adjusted for a day on the Black rodeo circuit in honor of the holiday. In the late 1970s, as they had been doing for generations, Black communities across the region held local rodeos for the talented cowboys and cowgirls who were segregated from the mainstream circuit. It was to these vibrant community events that bestselling Texas writer Sarah Bird, then a young photojournalist, found herself drawn.
In Juneteenth Rodeo, Bird’s lens celebrates a world that was undervalued at the time, capturing everything, from the moment the pit master fired up his smoker, through the death-defying rides, to the last celebratory dance at a nearby honky-tonk. Essays by Bird and sports historian Demetrius Pearson reclaim the crucial role of Black Americans in the Western US and show modern rodeo riders—who still compete on today’s circuit—as “descendants” in a more than two-hundred-year lineage of Black cowboys. A gorgeous tribute to the ropers and riders—legends like Willie Thomas, Myrtis Dightman, Rufus Green, Bailey’s Prairie Kid, Archie Wycoff, and Calvin Greeley—as well as the secretaries, judges, and pick-up men and even the audience members who were as much family as fans, Juneteenth Rodeo ultimately seeks to put Black cowboys and cowgirls where they have always belonged: in the center of the frame.
Sarah Bird is the bestselling author of more than a dozen novels and essay collections. She is an NPR Moth storyteller, a winner of the Meryl Streep screenwriting competition, a Texas Institute of Letters Lifetime Achievement winner, an ALEX award winner, a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, a finalist for the Dublin International Literary Award, and the hologram greeter for the Austin Central Library.
Demetrius Pearson is an associate professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston. His research focuses on sports history, and he is the author of Black Rodeo in the Texas Gulf Coast Region.
Juneteenth Rodeo is a joyous and beautiful account of a neglected history that should be well known to all.
~Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, author of On Juneteenth
These photos capture the great times I remember at the Diamond L and going to the club after the rodeo.
~Myrtis Dightman, Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame
Sarah Bird’s photos capture not just the rodeo, though I can feel it and smell it and hear it, but also family and friends, love and good times, kinfolk. Reading Juneteenth Rodeo is like receiving an answered prayer, bringing back memories I’ve never had in a time and place that I do remember.
~Celeste Bedford Walker, Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters’ Lifetime Achievement Award
Sarah Bird’s Juneteenth Rodeo is a welcome and overdue tale that had to be told. The touching, sometimes intimate, photos fill a void in the documentation of this vibrant cultural niche.
~Michael Hurd, author of Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas
These photos are incredible. The work is stunning.
~Mark Seliger, photographer, The City That Finally Sleeps
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