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July 2018

The Jackie Robinson of Rodeo

Five decades ago, Myrtis Dightman broke the color barrier in professional rodeo and became one of the best bull riders who ever lived. But his imprint on the sport was only just beginning.

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo

Eight seconds were all Myrtis Dightman needed to make history.

It was 1967, the first weekend in April, and the lean 31-year-old cowboy lowered himself onto the back of a 1,700-pound bull. He was at a rodeo in Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta, the farthest he’d ever been from his East Texas hometown of Crockett. The air was thick with the stench of livestock and cigarette smoke as five thousand onlookers packed the concrete grandstands.

Dightman, dressed in a starched collared shirt and tan chaps with three dark leather diamonds running down the sides, slid his legs around the flesh-and-blood powder keg, careful to keep his spurs turned out. He slipped his right hand into the braided hold behind the Brahman’s muscular hump. Red dust billowed from the bull’s hide as the grass rope—the only thing Dightman was allowed to hold on to—was pulled tight as a hangman’s halter around the animal’s midsection. His hand now strapped in the rigging, Dightman leaned forward until he was nearly looking down between the bull’s horns. He closed his left hand into a fist as he raised it high above his cream-colored cowboy hat.

To make a qualified ride, a cowboy has to hang on for eight seconds without his free hand touching himself or the bull. If he “makes eight,” judges will give the ride a score, with a total of a hundred possible points—fifty for how hard the bull bucked and fifty for the rider’s ability to stay in control. If Dightman held on, this ride could send him to the top of the standings. He took a breath, then nodded. The chute flung open.

1, 2, 3, 4 . . .

There’s nothing quite like being on the back of a thrashing, writhing, bred-to-buck ton of hoof, horn, and muscle to make one truly appreciate the relative nature of time. Seconds become small eternities as man and animal blur together in a violent yet beautiful dance.

. . . 5, 6, 7, 8.

The buzzer rang. Dightman was still gripping the rope.

The crowd certainly appreciated the ride. So did the judges, who awarded Dightman the go-round’s highest score, pushing his total for the two nights to 142 points—enough to crown him the winner. But it’s unlikely that anyone in the arena that night understood the historical importance of what they had witnessed. It wasn’t until the following Monday, after the Rodeo Cowboys Association tallied the earnings from every sanctioned event, that Dightman was declared the number one ranked bull rider in the world. That made him the first black cowboy to stake a claim for the world title.

The headline for the wire story that ran in newspapers across the country announced, “Negro Cowboy Takes Bull Riding Lead.” The news came twenty years to the month after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. No surprise, then, that sportswriters took to calling Dightman the Jackie Robinson of Rodeo. The comparison between the two athletes was, in some ways, painfully obvious: in an organization with over a thousand contestants, Dightman was the only African American competing full-time.

Pursuing a championship in the world’s most dangerous sport is a formidable task for any cowboy, but for a black cowboy in 1967 such an undertaking seemed, to most, downright impossible. Dightman refused to buy it. “A lot of folks thought rodeo was a white man’s game,” he said years later. “But those bulls don’t care if you’re white or black. You could be green, for all it matters. They just don’t want you on their backs.”

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo
Dightman at the 1966 National Finals Rodeo, in Oklahoma City.

Devere Helfrich/Dickinson Research Center/National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

The bulls might have been color-blind, but certain stock contractors and judges were not. Signs posted outside rodeo arenas across the Jim Crow South announced their prejudice in big, bold letters: “No dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted to snuff out this kind of explicit segregation, yet racism remained rampant. By the 1967 season Dightman had spent nearly a decade “riding the circuit” and had found ways to work around the system. He learned to hold his free hand farther away from his body than the other riders so a crooked judge wouldn’t be able to “foul him out.” He sometimes held on longer than the required eight seconds—just in case the timekeeper’s watch ran a little slow. And he wasn’t surprised when he somehow managed to draw the meanest bulls, the ones thought to be “unrideable,” over and over again.

Once, at a rodeo in Little Rock, a gateman stopped Dightman at the entry to the chutes: “No colored allowed.” Dightman pleaded with the man, even as the announcer called his name to ride. It wasn’t until a white bulldogger intervened that the gateman relented and let Dightman through. By then his bull had been turned out of the chute and returned to the holding pen. Dightman explained to rodeo officials what had happened, and they agreed to let him ride. He placed second.

He didn’t have time to stew over the injustice or celebrate his relative triumph. After he dismounted, Dightman threw his bull rope in the backseat of his Chevy Impala and headed for the next dusty town in hopes of winning another fat purse. He traveled nonstop from one event to the next, trying to win enough cash to earn a trip to the National Finals Rodeo, which was held each December in Oklahoma City. There, the year’s top fifteen money-earners in each event would compete for the most coveted piece of hardware in rodeo: a World Champion’s gold buckle.

Dightman had been to the NFR twice before, but until the 1967 season he hadn’t been a serious contender to win it all. Cowboys carry their year-end money totals into the event, and though there was enough prize money at stake to leapfrog several positions during the competition, Dightman had always started too far behind to have a realistic chance. Now, after the ride in Edmonton, he was closer than any other bull rider to bringing the buckle home.

“Those bulls don’t care if you’re white or black. You could be green, for all it matters. They just don’t want you on their backs.”

Unlike the baseball player he’s so often compared to, Dightman was not the first African American to compete in the major league of his sport. The history of rodeo runs deep, back to the golden age of cowboys, the two decades following the Civil War, when trail bosses such as Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight drove huge herds on long, epic journeys to meat-hungry markets up north. According to the countless dime-store novels and shoot-’em-ups inspired by this blip in American history, the Old West was tamed entirely by white buckaroos who looked like Gene Autry and John Wayne. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, historians such as Kenneth W. Porter, a well-respected scholar of the American West, have estimated that one in four cowboys was black. It varied from one outfit to another, but a typical group of eleven cowpokes pushing beef down those dusty trails might have included seven white men, three black men, and one Hispanic or Native American man. Though black cowboys often shouldered the least-desired chores and were rarely promoted to foremen, Porter said that cowboying may have been the least discriminatory industry at the time. These multicultural crews sweated, swore, and bunked down together at the end of every hard-ridden day. When they arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, or whatever railroad hub marked the end of their journey, the cowboys mostly received equal pay—and many of the saloons and gambling houses were glad to lighten their pocketbooks all the same.

By the late 1880s, when the era of trail drives drew to an end thanks to barbed wire and railroad tracks, more than 5,000 African Americans had helped drive some 10 million cattle out of Texas. The open range was closed, but there were still plenty of ranches, some the size of small states, that needed good hands. For the men who worked them, breaking wild broncos and roping steers were part of the daily grind. Proficiency at these tasks came with irrefutable bragging rights, and competitions between rival outfits became a primary source of entertainment on the lonely prairie. At some point—perhaps 1883, if you believe the claim the West Texas town of Pecos makes on being the first—these impromptu contests were organized into what we now know as rodeo.

From rodeo’s inception, black cowboys were among the best to throw a lasso or buck out of a chute. At the turn of the century, one of the most famous rodeo cowboys in America was Bill Pickett, a black ranch hand from Taylor, outside of Austin. Pickett is credited with inventing steer wrestling, one of the seven events seen today at pro rodeos. Also known as bulldogging, this is a timed contest in which the cowboy chases down a steer on horseback, leaps off to catch it by the horns, and flips the animal onto its side, which stops the clock. The modern version lacks the theatrics that Pickett originally employed. The celebrated daredevil would sink his teeth into the steer’s lip, like a bulldog, and make the tackle with both hands in the air.

After one particularly egregious incident, Stahl protested the judge’s score by riding his next bronco backward with a suitcase in one hand.

Less well-known today is Pickett’s contemporary Jesse Stahl, a black bronc rider who became a legend after mastering a gut-twisting bronco named Glass Eye at the Salinas Wild West Show in 1912. Stahl, despite the fame he enjoyed from this feat, believed that some judges marked him unfairly because he was black. Rodeo insiders began to refer to him as “the cowboy who wins first but gets third.” After one particularly egregious incident, Stahl protested the judge’s score by riding his next bronco backward with a suitcase in one hand.

This kind of discrimination intensified throughout the 1920s as new Jim Crow laws were passed across the country. Although the Rodeo Cowboys Association had been formed in 1936 to ensure that top contestants could earn a living wage competing on the national circuit year-round, its benefits did not extend to the black cowboy. (The group originally called itself the Cowboys’ Turtle Association because the founders were slow to organize, and it “had stuck its neck out to get started.” The RCA moniker was adopted in 1945, and today it is known as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.) The RCA never explicitly barred African Americans from competing, but some stock contractors refused to let a black cowboy rope or ride their animals. This, along with discriminatory laws and the surge of the KKK in the first half of the twentieth century, which made traveling in parts of the South even more dangerous than riding bulls, effectively prevented black contestants from joining the pro rodeo circuit. 

In response, “soul circuits” began to crop up along the Gulf Coast of Texas. These rodeos and other “hat rides” (audience members put money in a hat that was passed around) didn’t offer a big payout, but they provided African Americans an opportunity to compete. From this loose network emerged the Southwestern Colored Cowboys Association, one of the earliest minority rodeo organizations, which fostered some of the greatest talent in the sport’s history. Among these riders were Marvel Rogers, who puffed on Cuban cigars while busting broncs, and Willie Thomas, a talented bull rider who was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame. And, of course, there’s Thomas’s protégé: Myrtis Dightman.

Myrtis Dightman
“I don’t have time to fool around,” Dightman told a reporter in the summer of 1967. “I want to see a colored man [win].”

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Dightman took to cowboying at a young age. He was born in 1935, a few miles outside of Crockett, on a ranch owned by Karl Leediker, a white man whose family immigrated from Prussia. Dightman’s father, Odie, worked as a hand on the four-thousand-acre spread, one of the largest commercial ranches in Houston County. His mother, Ada Lee Polk, picked cotton and peas and cared for the family’s home. The house didn’t have electricity, so Dightman and his four siblings ate their dinner—cabbage greens, pinto beans, and sweet potatoes—by the light of a coal oil lamp.

When Dightman was ten years old, he was feeding, branding, and tending herds across the sprawling property. He quit school in seventh grade to work the ranch full-time, spending days on horseback driving several hundred head of cattle down dirt roads to the nearest railroad station.

By the time he turned eighteen, though, Dightman had had enough of working another man’s stock and moved to Houston, where he had kinfolk. There he picked up various odd jobs, but even in the city, Dightman remained a cowboy at heart. He started attending small rodeos held around Houston and soon realized that many of them were missing something. “A lot of times they didn’t have no rodeo clown,” Dightman remembered. “I said, ‘Shit, I can do that.’ ”

The job of a rodeo clown, or bullfighter, is to keep the bull from doing serious bodily harm to the cowboy after he’s bucked off. It turned out that Dightman, sure-footed and confident in the arena, was damn good at it. Soon he was working regional rodeos just about every weekend.

Dightman as a rodeo clown in the mid-sixties.

Courtesy of Myrtis Dightman

As a young bullfighter, Dightman befriended a bull rider named James Francies Jr., who had also been a ranch hand and had found work in the city as a lineman for Houston Lighting & Power. On their way to a rodeo one weekend, they got to talking about the upcoming Houston Fat Stock Show. Not a single trail rider scheduled to participate in the rodeo’s kickoff parade was black. They decided to change that. Dightman and Francies turned to Prairie View A&M, the historically black college known for its agriculture program, for help. In 1957, along with Alfred Poindexter, a veterinary professor, they founded the Prairie View Trail Riders Association, the first black organization of its kind in Texas and possibly the United States. That year, Dightman, Francies, and several others rode during the parade, though officials held them several blocks behind the rest of the procession. No matter. Their numbers grew the following year.

Eventually Dightman’s abilities as a bullfighter took him well beyond state lines to bigger rodeos with beefier paychecks. But he rarely saw African Americans competing. “Where are the black cowboys in pro rodeo?” he wondered. Although he turned 25 in 1960, middle-aged for pro rodeo, Dightman decided to try his hand at riding the “rough stock.” He asked several of the black cowboys he’d met while working the rodeos, including Willie Thomas, to show him the ropes. After years of preventing  bulls from trampling others, he started climbing on top of them himself. “The first few bulls threw me off pretty good,” Dightman recalled. “But that didn’t last long.”

In the spring of 1960 a couple of friends paid Dightman’s entry fee so that he could compete in his first rodeo. Sure enough, he finished in the money. That was all the motivation he needed. By July he was fighting and riding bulls at competitions across the state—and excelling at both. After a rodeo in Baird, the Abilene Reporter-News remarked that Dightman “rode the bull, got off its back, took off his boots and chaps, and commenced to do a little bullfighting. When he finally left the arena, there was no doubt remaining about his talents.”

Francies began urging his friend to go pro, but Dightman hesitated. The $50 initiation fee was steep, and he was married with three young children by then. One afternoon in 1961, Francies called: “Come on by, Myrtis. I’ve got something for you.” When Dightman arrived, Francies handed him a pro card. “The best investment I ever made,” Francies later told Sports Illustrated.

Dightman spent the next few years working on his craft but didn’t commit to rodeoing full-time. Like many black cowboys at the time, Dightman wasn’t offered sponsorships, so he found it necessary to keep a day job—he drove big rigs across the state. Finally, in 1964, he decided “to see what I could do if I really tried.” He crisscrossed the country, entering every rodeo his Chevy could make it to by showtime. It was a lonely existence. While the white riders booked into hotels with their families, Dightman would often pull over and sleep in the back seat of his car—but first he would talk with a local police officer and explain that he was just passing through. He found camaraderie with the other bull riders, but he was never sure how a new audience might respond to him. There were plenty of times when he was forced to ride after the main event had ended, in what’s called the slack. “It didn’t make no difference to me,” he says now. “I don’t care when you’re gonna let me ride. I was going to win some money.”

As the 1964 season wound down, Dightman was the seventeenth ranked bull rider in the world, two spots short of an invitation to the NFR. But in the last few contests, two higher-ranked cowboys got so busted up that both men were unable to ride in December. Incredibly, Dightman was headed to the National Finals, making him the first African American to compete at the World Series of rodeo. When Dightman showed up for the event, he was unusually anxious. This was the biggest stage of rodeo, after all. He managed to tie for second place in the first go-round, but only made one other qualified ride over the next seven nights. His first trip to the NFR added a paltry $245 to his year-end total, leaving him right where he was when the rodeo started: a disappointing seventeenth overall.

And although he had shattered a barrier in the sport, the year on the road had been tough on him and his family. When his wife, Fannie Mae, was in labor with their fifth and final child, that August, Dightman was 1,500 miles away, at a rodeo in Billings, Montana. He walked away with the first-prize buckle but missed the birth of his son. Dightman decided to step away from rodeo and went back to driving eighteen-wheelers.

The career change afforded him more time at home, but he hated working for someone else. In rodeo, the rules were simple: “The bull wants to be the boss, and it’s up to you to prove that he ain’t.” Dightman had tasted the freedom and thrill of the cowboy’s life; rodeo had settled in his blood. There was no going back.

He returned to bull riding in 1966, this time more focused than before—no more bullfighting. He would concentrate solely on winning money punching an eight-second timecard. He placed third at Cheyenne, in front of 15,000 fans, and he was recognized as the first black contestant to ride in Houston’s Astrodome, where he placed first in the opening go-round. By the end of the season Dightman was ranked eighth nationally, and he earned enough points at the NFR  to hold on to that position, his best finish yet.

Dightman had proven to detractors that black cowboys could ride with the best in rodeo. Yet still he sought a higher goal: he wanted to be the world champion, and 1967 was the year he was going to do it.

Dightman at the Salinas Rodeo in 1967.

Devere Helfrich/Dickinson Research Center/National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

For rodeo devotees, the 1967 season was one for the ages. All year, Dightman was locked in a fierce fight with two of the best riders on the circuit. Bill Stanton, 26 years old and a near ringer for Hank Williams Sr., had shot to the top of the standings in early March after besting 83 other challengers to win an event in Houston. Less than two weeks later, Stanton edged out Dightman by three points to win the Sheriff’s Rodeo in San Bernardino, California. The Washington cowboy was off to the best start of his career,  but hot on his wedged heels was Larry Mahan.

At 23, the future Hall of Famer was already making his mark on rodeo. Mahan wore psychedelic chaps and kept his hair long, behavior that would’ve gotten most laughed out of the arena. But no one could knock Mahan’s ability. In addition to being a skilled bull rider, he was a top hand in the bareback and saddle bronc events. The year before, he had brought home $40,358, nearly matching the record for most money earned in a single season and he won his first All-Around Cowboy title, an award given to the contestant who competes in two or more events and earns the most overall money. By April 1967 he was already on pace to smash the single season record.

Though Stanton had jumped out to an early lead, Dightman’s first-place finish at the rodeo in Edmonton, Canada, had boosted his total earnings to $7,651, knocking Stanton from the top of the rankings by just $2. Such razor-thin margins provided excellent fodder for the papers, which  hyped their “neck-and-neck battle” to lure bigger crowds to local rodeos. In Vernon, west of Wichita Falls, Dightman and Stanton drew the same bull, a powerful beast named B-16.  The showdown ended in a draw: B-16 shucked both riders before the buzzer sounded.

Most of the time, though, it was Dightman who got the better of his bovine adversary. At the Rose Bowl, he went head-to-head with Dreamboat, “one of the orneriest Brahmas on the rodeo circuit,” according to the Independent Star-News in Pasadena. Dightman rode him to the buzzer and the grand-prize buckle. At a rodeo in Fort Smith, Arkansas, one admiring cowpoke said to a reporter, “I’d turn black or green if I could ride those devils like he does.”

Across the country, meanwhile, racial tensions were at a fever pitch. That summer, riots left scores of African Americans dead in Detroit, Newark, Tampa, and elsewhere. In Houston, 488 students were arrested after a protest at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. Muhammad Ali was promptly stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing an order to fight in Vietnam, and a few weeks later he held a press conference to explain his objections to the draft. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he famously said. Several of the era’s most well-known African American athletes sat beside him in solidarity. The Ali Summit, as it has since become known, was a transformational moment in America, when black athletes entered the public consciousness as figures of social change.

In most ways, Dightman was nothing like Ali. He was humble and even-tempered, and he possessed the reticence of a man accustomed to being alone. A cowboy’s sensibilities. He let his riding do the talking. And yet the two men shared a relentless competitive streak. “I don’t have time to fool around,” Dightman told a reporter that summer. “I want to see a colored man [win].” As rodeo’s only black cowboy, the pressure was on him to do it.

Behind the chutes, the discussion often turned to whatever feat Dightman had managed the week before, whether it was dogging a steer for kicks or turning in yet another classic ride.

All three of the top riders remained hot, but the threat of injury was constant. At a rodeo in Redding, California, Dightman was kicked in the chest and flew some twenty feet across the arena. “Everybody thought I was hurt real bad,” he told Newsweek, “but I hardly felt it.” Mahan wasn’t so lucky. During the frenzy of July Fourth rodeos known as “Cowboy Christmas,” a bull broke his instep. The reigning all-around champ was sidelined while Dightman and Stanton forged ahead.

Though there were bigots who’d show up to hurl insults at Dightman, the majority of the fans just wanted to see a good ride, and that was something he was able to deliver night after night. The quiet cowboy from Crockett was acquiring a following. His fellow cowboys were also impressed. Behind the chutes, the discussion often turned to whatever feat Dightman had managed the week before, whether it was dogging a steer for kicks or turning in yet another classic ride.

No bull rider thought more highly of Dightman than Warren “Freckles” Brown. The Oklahoma cowboy and Dightman occasionally traveled together. They made quite the pair: the only black cowboy in pro rodeo barreling down the highway with the oldest bull rider on the circuit. One writer described Brown as “the most implausible athlete in creation, a smiley little chipmunk going on 47 in a kid’s game.” By 1967 Brown had won a world championship, fought in World War II, and broken his neck riding bulls. He had so many pins and screws holding him together that he called himself “a walking hardware store.” To Dightman, though, he was the Unsinkable Mr. Brown and the closest thing he had to a brother in the world of pro rodeo. Just like the cowpokes of the Old West, they rode, ate, and bunked together—and both men dreamed of cinching their Wranglers with the ’67 gold buckle.

Dightman was getting closer to realizing that dream. Though he had slipped back to second a couple of weekends after Edmonton, he was raking in cash everywhere he went. But a few weeks after his July injury, Mahan returned to action with a specially rebuilt boot and a vengeance for every critter he drew. In September he boosted his total earnings by winning the Pendleton Round-Up in front of a home-state Oregon crowd. The reigning all-around champion proved to be unstoppable, and not only because he was one of the best to ever strap on spurs. He and Stanton held another advantage—they each owned a private plane. While Dightman hit the road in his Chevy, Mahan and Stanton zipped across the skies, which allowed them to hit more rodeos with more time to rest in between. Before the regular season ended, Mahan overtook the lead from Stanton, pushing Dightman down to third.

Still, there was a lot of money to be won at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. Plus, Dightman had a bit of extra encouragement: his wife, Fannie, and their oldest son, Myrtis Jr., would be in the stands cheering him on.

On the first evening of the finals, both Dightman and Brown drew unrideable bulls. Dightman would face Playmate, a white and tan Brahman with horns curved like the prongs of a pitchfork. Brown would take on Tornado, a malevolent beast that had bucked off more than two hundred cowboys without a single qualified ride. The odds didn’t look good for either of them. But Dightman was on a mission—he’d try this one the same as he’d try any other. Playmate came rumbling out of the chute, kicking up clouds of dust as he tried to throw his would-be conqueror, but when the buzzer sounded, Dightman was still hanging on. Even so, the judges scored him low. On the last ride of the night, meanwhile, Brown ascended into rodeo mythology by becoming the first to conquer Tornado (he finished fifth overall). Even Dightman couldn’t believe it: the Unsinkable Mr. Brown had done it again.

Over the next six go-rounds, Dightman never managed a top score. He finally placed third in the eighth go-round, but the championship had all but slipped away.  Still, Dightman refused to go gently. On the final night, he clambered over the chute and onto Batman, a black brute that had yet to be mastered at the NFR. The gate swung open, and the bull leaped out, leaving ropes of slobber in his wake. Junior looked on from the stands as his father’s left foot spurred in tandem with the bull’s every movement. Fannie shielded her eyes. Finally, the buzzer went off. Dightman made a clean dismount. It was a good ride, good enough to win the go-round, but when the money was tallied, Dightman’s $16,014 fell short.

He had thrown everything he had at the title but was only able to manage third. Dejected, he turned to Brown. “Freckles, what do I have to do to win the world championship?” he asked.

“Myrtis,” Brown replied, “you keep riding like you do. And turn white.”

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo
Dightman at his ranch, in Crockett, on May 29.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo
In Clovis, California, in 1973.

Gene Hyder/Dickinson Research Center/National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Left:

Dightman at his ranch, in Crockett, on May 29.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Right:

In Clovis, California, in 1973.

Gene Hyder/Dickinson Research Center/National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

The next year, as Dightman’s popularity on the circuit soared, prejudiced judges found it harder to shave points from his score because fans and other RCA members would protest. And the few towns that continued to make him compete after the main event were now required by the RCA to hold two or three white contestants to ride in the slack with him.

“The lonely bull rider,” as many newspapers referred to him, was also spending less time traveling solo. In addition to his trips with Brown, Dightman became a frequent passenger on planes piloted by fellow bull riders. “A lot of the white guys tried to help me,” he said. “[After a rodeo] Larry Mahan or Bobby Berger would say, ‘Why don’t you leave your car here for two or three weeks and come with us?’ ”

Even as aspects of the sport were gradually improving, racist attitudes continued to affect Dightman in ways that his white friends on the circuit could hardly comprehend. At one point Mahan asked Dightman if he wanted to hitch a ride to a rodeo in Montgomery, Alabama. Dightman shook his head. “I don’t think I want to be going to Montgomery.”

“That was the first time that it dawned on me, the situation that Myrtis was dealing with,” said Mahan, who went on to earn six all-around titles. “Until then it had never entered my mind.”

That Dightman succeeded under these circumstances is a testament to both his talent and his grit. In 1968 he fought his way back to the NFR and ended the year ranked fourth. He was riding that hot streak into the next season when he ran into an old foe at the Tucson rodeo: B-16, the black Brahman who had tossed him and Stanton at the same event two years before. Three jumps out of the chute, B-16 threw his head back and struck Dightman in the forehead. The cowboy crumpled to the dirt, blood pouring from the wound. Before the bullfighters could reach them, B-16 delivered a parting kick to the side of Dightman’s skull. He was carried off on a stretcher and rushed to Pima County Hospital, where it took seventy stitches to piece his face back together. His head was so swollen that he couldn’t put on his hat, but Dightman boarded an evening flight to Houston, and the next day, still bleeding beneath two inches of bandages, he was back on another bull, trying to make eight.

Dightman went on to qualify for the National Finals that year and again the next, but he didn’t come close to winning either time. In 1971 he turned 36—practically geriatric in the world of bull riding. He had won most of the big-time rodeos, from Fort Worth to Seattle, but he’d fallen short of claiming the World Champion gold buckle. So he rode on. Behind the chutes, he wrapped elastic bandages tightly around his aching right elbow and taped both wrists. To ease a nagging hip injury, he strapped a women’s girdle beneath his jeans. That year he won two of the most prestigious events in rodeo: the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days, where he was presented with a silver plaque and a Winchester rifle. Yet even with those victories, Dightman finished the 1971 season just outside of the top fifteen. He had missed the National Finals for the first time in six years.

The following year, Dightman battled back to his seventh and final NFR, where he finished seventh. Only nineteen other bull riders in the history of rodeo have earned more trips to the National Finals, and yet his ultimate goal eluded him—he never finished higher than his third-place ranking, in 1967. Dightman wasn’t ready to hang up his spurs, but his days riding the circuit full-time were numbered. “When you get to hitting the ground, and that ground ain’t too soft,” he said, “that’s when you know it’s time to quit.”

“I’d come back to the hotel and ask Myrtis how he dealt with the hatred. He’d say, ‘Just ride, Charlie. Just show them you can ride.’ ”

Dightman’s quest for a gold buckle took on another form. In 1972 he was in Los Angeles for a rodeo, killing time at the El Fig Stables, when a scrawny kid from Watts named Charles Sampson approached him. Sampson had first visited the stables four years earlier on a Cub Scout trip. He paid a quarter to ride one of the ponies and was instantly hooked. He started spending so much time there that the owner let him muck stalls in exchange for riding horses and, later, steers. Sampson admired the older black cowboys who hung around the stables, but they only rodeoed on weekends and never ventured beyond Southern California. He’d seen Dightman passing through town one day and was intrigued. He started asking the others about him. “They told me, ‘He’s a rodeo cowboy. He travels all over the world.’ I said, ‘Wow. I want to be like Myrtis.’ ”

At fifteen, Sampson had tried his first bull. Someone snapped a photograph of the ride, and he carried the black-and-white print around, waiting for Dightman to swing back through L.A. Now his chance had arrived, and Sampson summoned the courage to hand the photo to his hero. Dightman studied the image. “That’s a good-looking picture, son,” he told Sampson. The teen explained that it was his dream to travel and ride bulls, just like Dightman. The veteran must have recognized something of himself in the young cowboy. He agreed to mentor Sampson, but under one condition. “You need to finish your education,” he said.

Sampson kept his part of the deal, though he had to accept his high school diploma hobbling across the stage on crutches because a bull had broken his leg two weeks before the ceremony. He enrolled at Central Arizona College on a rodeo scholarship, and after leaving school in 1978, he went to stay with Dightman in Crockett. Dightman, who turned 43 that year, had begun spending less time on the circuit and more days at the Diamond L Ranch rodeo arena, in Houston. The arena had been a fixture of black cowboy culture since the soul circuit days of the forties. When the arena’s founder, J. L. Sweeny, died, in 1976, Dightman took over management and continued Sweeny’s mission of nurturing promising young talent and providing black cowboys and cowgirls a place to rope and ride.

Sampson nudged Dightman out of retirement by entering the two of them in rodeos across the state. “That’s when I really got a taste of what it was like to travel with greatness,” Sampson said. “Here I was, living out a lifelong dream, following in Myrtis’s footsteps.” And like the man he admired, Sampson wanted nothing more than to be a world champion.

Injuries derailed his first few seasons as a pro bull rider, but in 1981 Sampson managed to stay healthy and qualify for the National Finals, the first time a black cowboy had done so since Dightman, nine years before. Sampson was one of the most dominant athletes in rodeo, but not everyone was thrilled by his success. There were times he would call his mentor from the road. “Myrtis, I’m trying my butt off. I rode a good bull, but they didn’t give me enough points. Some of the guys are telling me, ‘They screwed Myrtis, and now they’re doing the same thing to you.’ ”

“I’d kick and scream at the judges,” Sampson said. “Then I’d come back to the hotel and ask Myrtis how he dealt with the hatred. He’d say, ‘Just ride, Charlie. Just show them you can ride.’ ”

Sampson took his advice. In 1982 he was the cowboy to beat going into the National Finals. Again, he dialed his hero. “You’ve got to be there, Myrtis. Whatever it takes you to get there, I need you in Oklahoma.” Days later, Sampson lowered his five-foot-four-inch frame onto the biggest bull in pro rodeo, a one-horned colossus named Gallon of Velvet, so massive that he required two chutes. “Only me and my shorts knew how scared I was,” he said. If Sampson could ride to the buzzer, he would earn enough points to solidify the title. And when he gave the word, it was Dightman who pulled his rope.

“Just ride,” Dightman told him.

Eight seconds later, Sampson achieved the title of World Champion.

Swarmed by the press, Sampson made his way directly over to Dightman. “We did it,” Sampson told him.

“I never won it, but I didn’t have to,” Dightman told him at the awards ceremony. “You won it for me.”

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo
A ring Dightman wears that was given to him at his induction into the Professional Bull Riders Ring of Honor.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, in 1947, a flood of talented black athletes entered the sport behind him. Despite Sampson’s achievement, the same can’t be said of pro rodeo.

There are those who did find success. Fred Whitfield, who became the first black all-around champion, in 1999, credited Dightman with blazing the trail. But there are still relatively few African Americans competing today, and black cowboys say it remains difficult to break into the predominantly white sport. One obstacle is the omission of black cowboys from pop culture and the historical record. Another is lack of access to expensive cutting horses (a quarter horse used for roping can cost $40,000) and saddles, bridles, and other tack. Today’s cowboys on the Professional Bull Riders circuit compete for a $1 million payout each season, with pyrotechnics and bone-rattling music adding an extra layer of flair to the modern event. But the heart of it, Dightman says, remains unchanged. “You still got to ride the same way: with one hand.”

If Dightman had ridden at a later time, many believe he would have been a champ, possibly several times over. But Dightman’s legacy outshines any gold buckle, and his impact has been felt far outside of the arena. The Outcasts premiered in 1968, featuring the first prominent African American character on a TV western. The first black rodeo parade in Harlem was held in 1971, with Muhammad Ali in attendance (on horseback, no less). Soon thereafter several minority rodeo organizations were formed, and some of the first major academic studies of African American cowboy history were published.

Even Hollywood came calling. Dightman was hired to ride bulls in Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 film Junior Bonner, starring Steve McQueen. That same year he made his acting debut in J. W. Coop, a modern western about pro rodeo, playing himself. Dightman was also cast as the black Marlboro Man in commercials, and he appeared on posters for Tony Lama boots. For the black rodeo competitors coming up behind him, these were some of the most important milestones of Dightman’s career—before him, no African American cowboy had been offered sponsorship, a near necessity in a sport where athletes pay their own way, from entry fees to travel expenses, and only deposit a paycheck if they win.

Even after Dightman left the RCA circuit, he continued riding bulls into his fifties. In fact, he won the bull riding title in the Old Timers Rodeo Association in 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987. His final ride was in 1988, at the inaugural Myrtis Dightman Hall of Fame Rodeo, held in Crockett. His namesake event draws competitors from across the state and raises scholarship funds for young cowboys. Dightman is always on hand to sign autographs and offer words of encouragement to up-and-coming athletes. This Labor Day weekend will mark the event’s thirtieth year.

In 1997 Dightman became the first living African American (and the third ever, after Bill Pickett and Jesse Stahl) to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. This time it was Sampson who traveled to Oklahoma City to honor his mentor. “Nobody loves Myrtis as a person and a bull rider more than I do,” Sampson said.

Myrtis Dightman Rodeo
Trophies and photos in Dightman’s living room, including a group shot of the 1967 NFR qualifiers.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

On a recent morning, the Jackie Robinson of Rodeo fixed himself a cup of instant coffee, threw on a well-worn bomber jacket, fired up his tractor, and moved three round bales of hay to the pasture he was using to graze some thirty head of cattle on his ten-acre spread, a few miles outside of Crockett. The 83-year-old stepped nimbly from the tractor’s seat, defying the punishment his body had taken from  climbing aboard bone-crushing brutes for three decades. “Yes sir,” he likes to say, “the Lord’s been good to me.”

The cows fed, Dightman turned his attention to “doin’ a whole lot of nothin’.” On this morning, like most mornings, that meant sitting on his front porch with the sun warming his knees, listening to the blue jays and robins, waving to the trucks that happen by. When he’s not at his ranch, Dightman spends time in Houston visiting family and his longtime girlfriend, Linda. (He and Fannie divorced in the seventies.) But he enjoys being by himself in Crockett, sitting on his porch or having lunch at the Cattleman’s Country Café, where he always sprinkles two packets of sugar over his beans. Sometimes he’ll go watch the cattle auction afterward. He likes spending his time this way. No boss, no obligations—exactly what he always wanted.

Dightman lives in the two-bedroom house his mother owned before she died in 2012. Inside, pictures of her hang next to photos of Dightman astride old foes—Batman, Playmate, and B-16—as well as among old friends: Mahan, Brown, Thomas, and Sampson. Bull riding trophies crowd nearly every surface of the living room, along with a few acquired at pool-hall tournaments, a hobby he picked up to help him relax between competitions. Next to the sofa, a Bible is opened to the Book of Psalms. “It ain’t much,” Dightman says of his home, “but this here belongs to me.”

Compared with other former rodeo stars, Dightman lives humbly. The flashiest object he owns is a diamond-studded gold ring he wears in place of a wedding band. He was given the ring fifteen years ago, at his induction into the Professional Bull Riders’s Ring of Honor. He’s rarely taken it off since. 

Stories about Dightman still make the rounds at rodeo arenas, like the time he outran twenty other cowboys in a race up a mountain outside of San Luis Obispo, California—barefoot. Or the time in Pueblo, Colorado, that he got “hung up” and jumped back onto the bull to untangle his hand from the rigging. Such exploits live on. Ty Murray, the 1993 and 1998 Bull Riding Champion and seven-time All-Around Cowboy, grew up on these tales. “Myrtis is a pioneer in our sport,” Murray said. “He went through the brush first and cleared a path for Charlie to become a world champion. He’s one of those guys who made this a better world for a lot of people.”

Dightman tends to shrug off such praise. Only when pressed will he talk about the nights he spent in his Chevy or the rodeos that turned him away or made him ride in the slack. How does he feel about being called the Jackie Robinson of Rodeo? “It makes me feel good, you know,” he says, “but it’s just something people want to do. I don’t try to be no big shot. I’m just me.”

Yet Dightman has now been enshrined in virtually every hall of fame for pro bull riders, including the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Three miles from his ranch, outside of the Crockett rodeo arena that once refused him entry, a bronze bust of him sits atop a concrete pillar. And last year, the Prairie View Trail Riders Association celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. What began with Dightman and James Francies has grown to an organization of over five hundred riders participating annually. Myrtis Jr. is the current trail boss, and in 2017 Dightman joined the Houston Rodeo parade as the guest of honor, riding at the very front.

A few Sundays every month, you can find him at the Second Baptist Church in Katy. To earn a little pocket change, Dightman shuttles congregants from the church’s entrance to their vehicles. Instead of hanging on to a bull rope, Dightman’s muscular right arm works the lever opening the bus door for perfumed ladies and groggy-eyed kids toting Bibles. A few of the passengers ask him about his rodeo days, but most just nod to “Mister Myrtis.”

Dightman doesn’t mind the anonymity. He’s not one to dwell too much on the past. “I don’t miss nothing,” he says. “I can’t do it no more, so why miss it?” He does like to think back on his travels, though, all that country he saw chasing a dream. He remembers the cool mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, and his favorite place, Canada, where he won that rodeo in Edmonton all those years ago.

“I’ve had a good life,” Dightman says, resting in the shade of his porch. “I was a cowboy.”

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Tags: Feature, History, Longreads, Race, Sports, Bull Riding, cowboy, myrtis dightman, Rodeo

Comments

  • Hannibal

    The first? Ever hear of Bill Pickett?

    • To quote the story you’re commenting on: “Unlike the baseball player he’s so often compared to, Dightman was not the first African American to compete in the major league of his sport… At the turn of the century, one of the most famous rodeo cowboys in America was Bill Pickett, a black ranch hand from Taylor, outside of Austin.”

    • Nathan Robinson

      The first MLB black ball player was Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Fleetwood_Walker

  • Raina

    Awesome photographs.
    Awesome story. What a man!!

  • Aziza Travis

    What an amazing story and beautiful photos.

  • merman1122

    Sensational inspiring article. Just proves again what the human spirit can accomplish against all odds and that truth is stranger and more fantastic than fiction. Looking forward to a movie about the life of Myrtis Dightman with Mr. Dightman providing assistance to the Directors and Producers.

  • cgny

    Excellent story, but Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African-American to play major league baseball. Moses Walker played professional baseball for a number of years, and in 1884, joined Toledo of the American Association, a top level league along with the National League.

  • Rudolfo Rojas

    Incredibly inspiring story that shows the will of the human spirit through the adversity and triumphs life throws your way. Looks like Mr. Myrtis chose to hold his head up high and dealt with all of the slings and arrows that life threw his way. A story that can inspire young people never to give up.

  • Hannibal

    The REAL Jackie Robinson of rodeo was Bill Pickett.

  • Erica D

    I’m a native Houstonian with African American heritage who grew up seeing the PV trail riders but never knew its rich history nor had I ever heard of Myrtis Dightman. I’m inspired by his focus, determination, perseverance, and ability to rise higher than all the negativity. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this incredible story of American history!

  • Erica

    I’m a native Houstonian with African American heritage who grew up seeing the PV trail riders but never knew its rich history nor had I ever heard of Myrtis Dightman. I’m inspired by his focus, determination, perseverance, and ability to rise higher than all the negativity. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this incredible story of American history!

  • Zecol

    Refreshing story ~ much appreciated given the news cycle that we suffer through every day…

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