FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – From the drama of dueling to the thrill of the chase, classy 1950s Western TV shows seemed to have it all. But while famous heroes were all white, historians say, in real life the Old West was just as diverse as our communities today. The Smithsonian estimates that one in four cowboys was black.
Cleo Hearn wants to make sure everyone remembers the real story. “Black cowboys in the history books… [are] damn almost forgotten,” Hearn told a documentary crew in 2016.
READ MORE: Federal judge awards narrow defeat to Texas on mail-in ballot limits
Hearn is a big part of that story. He was the first African American to go to college on a rodeo scholarship. He was also the first to win a major calf roping event. But racism kept him out of many competitions, including one his son remembers well.
“They found out he was African American and they said ‘here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll pay you the equivalent of first place if you go home,” recalls Harlan, Hearn’s son.
“People would see me at a rodeo,” Hearn said, “And because I was a different color, they thought I was working for someone.”
So he decided to start his own rodeo. In 1971 Hearn helped found the Texas Black Rodeo. In 1995 it changed the name to Cowboys of Color, to include all races and ethnicities. His hope was the inclusion of the participants and the public. It is now a family affair, with Hearn’s four sons helping to run the organization.
READ MORE: North Texas seeks cure for rare aftermath of COVID-19
“The reason we’re doing this is to educate and entertain,” Harlan said. “We want to expose them, pique their interest, give them some history.”
The Cowboys of Color Invitational Rodeo is held annually on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Unlike many rodeos, attendees do not pay an entry fee. Cleo, now 81, did not attend this year’s event, but her son says the mission continues.
“Western history education for people of color is very important, and I believe that’s one of the driving forces that has kept it going all these years.”
Click here to learn more about Colored Cowboys.
Watch the mini-documentary on Hearn by clicking here.
NO MORE NEWS: Super Bowl spread costs a little more this year
Check out CBS 11’s 2018 report on Cleo Hearn here.