Where Horses and Riding are a Way of Life: Ron Tarver’s Journey to Documenting the Black Cowboy Experience

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Photographer Ron Tarver grew up in Fort Gibson, a small town in Oklahoma where horses, cattle, and Wrangler jeans were steeped in the rhythms of everyday life. His grandfather was a cowboy admired for his roping skills, and many of his family owned ranches in the area. But he wanted to “get away from the horses,” and in 1983 he landed a job as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he found himself drawn to a range of subjects, from front-of-house churches to celebrities.

Then, in the early 1990s, he photographed the drug culture of North Philadelphia, spending periods of time living in heroin dens and crack houses. Exhausted from the desperate topic, he decided that for his next business he wanted to do something that would cheer him up. Sometimes he would walk in the park, and he would see a guy come around the corner with a big cowboy hat, on a horse.

“It was so unexpected,” he recalls. In Oklahoma – of course, whatever. But in town? One day he approached one of the men and asked him if he could make a story about them. “Get up to the stables,” the man said, and with that invitation Tarver gained access to the urban riding clubs of Philadelphia, one of which is featured in the Netflix film, ”Concrete cowboy. “

In an interview that has been edited for length and clarity, Tarver – who is now a professor at Swarthmore College, explained how his photographs of Philadelphia’s urban riding clubs ended up being a larger project on the experience. black cowboys in America.

How did these equestrian clubs work?

Ron Tarver: Well, there are a lot of groups. The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club has kind of become the one everyone knows because it’s the one that featured in [G. Neri’s young adult novel] Ghetto cowboy, and now the movie. But the one I spent the most time with was this big guy in Brewerytown, the Western Wranglers. They occupied an abandoned building called the White House which had been turned into stables. It was big, with something like 15 or 20 horse berries, and it was an operation. They organized these impromptu parades through the city. Eventually, the White House was transformed into condos. A guy called Bumpsey – George Bullock was his real name – owned the White House with his sister. He seemed to sort of organize everything. He was so fit, and he looked like a cowboy, with the big bar-shaped mustache. Just an incredibly attractive guy. I got a call from him last fall, completely out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken to him for about 25 years. About a month later, he died of COVID.

Do you know the origins of the clubs?

Ron Tarver: A lot of [original club members] had grown up in the South and moved up to Philadelphia, where there was already an infrastructure [for horses] in place. Philadelphia had a lot of stables because there were food carts, and people would put the fruits and vegetables on the horse-drawn carts and then cross the street to sell their wares. This kind of tradition died out, but the stables were still there. For those who joined the clubs, it was their life. The older members passed on their knowledge to the younger ones. I guess you could equate it to skateboarding. I mean, you look at skateboarding – there are older people who skate, there are young people who skate. It’s a way of life and a community, and that’s what they’ve been doing, day in and day out.

Once the photos were published, how did readers react?

Ron Tarver: We have received a ton of mail. It was unbelievable.

Some wrote: “Black cowboys don’t exist. They actually said that. I say to myself: “These photos prove it! I am not making this up! They were just amazed that black people could be cowboys. And of course, many were just happy to see the story because it kind of opened their eyes. Then we got a lot of mail from black people saying, “Yes, I have known that from the start. I’m just glad someone brought it to the fore. I went to my editor and said, “Look, we got so many good mail. I know there are other stories across the country we could do. They accepted it. So I went out and found stories in Texas, Illinois, and California. National Geographic saw the stories and offered me a development grant to do it for them. I took time off from the diary and went out and took some more pictures.

Where have these stories taken you?

Ron Tarver: There was a big rodeo in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I went there and photographed it. I found a black couple who were getting married Western style in Texas – instead of having the limo, they had a stagecoach. A woman came with her pet pig, and the pig had pink nails. I spent time in a small town just south of Brownsville, Texas, in east Texas. Every Sunday these people would get together and they just had these impromptu rodeos, throw money in the hat, and they ride the bull, roped calf, all that stuff. Then on Saturday, they had these crazy parties until four in the morning near the rodeo arenas of their ranches. Just amazing.

During the George Floyd protests last summer, some of the protesters drew a lot of attention for showing up on horseback in places like Los Angeles and New York.

Ron Tarver: Yeah, and that’s great. But you know, what interests me most is communities where this lifestyle is just part of who you are. After [rapper] Lil Nas X got popular [in 2019], everyone got really interested in black cowboys. The Studio Museum in Harlem had an exhibit, and they invited me and other people who had taken pictures of cowboys. I went upstairs and didn’t have a cowboy hat or anything. I didn’t even want to pretend to be a cowboy, you know? But I went over there and there was a guy and he was wearing a fancy western outfit. So there will always be people who just love to wear that kind of clothes, and that’s different from the people who actually experience it – the people from those little places that I found in Texas and California. I have a cousin, Donnie – he now lives in Alabama – and after black cowboys started to become very popular, I asked him if he considered himself a cowboy. He said, “I was wearing the Wranglers. I wore the hat, I had the cowboy boots. I would get up and feed the horses and the cattle and stuff. But I don’t think of myself as a cowboy. People like Donnie don’t do it for the show. I don’t demean people who ride horses in demonstrations. I think it’s great. But I’m really interested in the little black communities there, where it’s just the way of life.


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