In a 2016 portrait by the photographer Brad Trent, an older black woman poses on a bale of hay, a white Stetson hat on her head and a pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots on her feet. The fringe on her leather jacket flows downward, as do her knee-length dreadlocks, which echo the texture of the lasso coiled in her fist. Her posture is at once relaxed and confrontational. Her gaze is steely as a gun.
The woman in the image is Kesha (Mama) Morse, the sixty-seven-year-old president of the New York Federation of Black Cowboys, an organization that is devoted to teaching inner-city kids about a neglected aspect of American history: the thousands of African-Americans who played a role in settling the Old West. According to scholars, one in four cowboys working in Texas during the golden age of westward expansion was black; many others were Mexican, mestizo, or Native American—a far more diverse group than Hollywood stereotypes of the cowboy would suggest. Bass Reeves, a black lawman who had a Native American sidekick, is thought to have served as a model for the Lone Ranger. Britt Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by Comanches, in 1865, partly inspired John Ford’s classic film “The Searchers,” almost a century later. In the wake of the Civil War, the African-American Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched by Congress to protect Western settlers and federal land. Read more here.