Fred Whitfield and the black cowboys of rodeo

The champion calf-roper is a legend and an outlier.

Paul Wachter, The Undefeated | 11/2/2016, 12:26 p.m.
The champion calf-roper is a legend and an outlier.
Fred Whitfield looks back while waiting in the competitors tunnel to enter the ring during introductions to kick-off the day at Calgary Stampede in Canada. Whitfield is an 8 time world champion tie-down roper and one of the few African Americans in professional rodeo. Jason Franson for The Undefeated

The time to beat was 7.4 seconds. Six cowboys had preceded Fred Whitfield in this early heat of the calf-roping event at the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day extravaganza that attracts a million visitors and the best professional rodeo competitors on the planet.

He sat astride Jewel, his horse, in a chute on the side of the 25,000-seat, open-air stadium. Beside him, in another chute, was a calf that had been raised for this moment. In a few seconds, the chutes would open, with the calf getting the briefest of head starts. If all went well, Whitfield would give chase, lasso the animal, dismount, flip it to the ground, and tie three of its legs together with the small rope that now was clenched in his teeth. All in the time it takes most of us to tie our shoes.

But first the emcee introduced Whitfield. “There are stars, there are superstars, and then there are legends,” he bellowed. As Whitfield’s name flashed upon the stadium’s screens, he was met with thunderous applause — much louder than any of the previous competitors received. And Whitfield is a legend. He’s won more than $3 million and eight world championships (“gold buckles”) competing on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour, the National Football League of rodeos. He’s also won the calf-roping event at the Stampede three times. Then the emcee ribbed Whitfield: “What is he now, 75? 68?” Actually, Whitfield was only 49 — he turned 50 the next month — but that’s practically geriatric in the punishing world of rodeo.

Soloman

Soloman

Whitfield

Whitfield

Left unsaid was another distinction. The Calgary Stampede features five men’s rodeo events — calf roping, bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback riding, and steer wrestling — and one women’s competition, barrel racing. There were 120 competitors, and only two were African-American — Whitfield and another calf roper and fellow Texan Cory Solomon.

The Stampede isn’t an outlier in professional rodeo. Not surprisingly, both Whitfield and Solomon say their paths have been made more difficult by the overwhelming whiteness of their sport and the racism, both overt and subtle, that accompanies it.

As the gates opened, the calf sprinted away. Whitfield and his horse were right behind and the lasso found its mark. A second or two later, Whitfield, a powerfully built 6-foot-2, had the calf on the dirt. The roping was assured, and Whitfield jumped up and spread his arms like a linebacker who’s just sacked the quarterback. His time, 6.9 seconds, was the best of day, which entitled Whitfield to a victory lap and another long ovation. “I’ve always been received by the fans as well as anyone in the sport,” Whitfield said. For less than seven seconds of work, Whitfield won $5,500 and a chance to advance to the finals.

The cowboy is an iconic American figure and in popular mythology almost always a white one. For every Django or Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman’s character in Unforgiven) there are hundreds of white gunslingers. But of the “estimated thirty-five thousand cowboys that worked the ranches and rode the trails between 1866 and 1895, researchers have calculated that the number of black cowboys ranged from five thousand to nine thousand, with the high number representing 25 percent,” wrote Tricia Martineau Wagner, an author of several books about the West, in Black Cowboys of the Old West.