Leaving the concrete of metropolitan Philadelphia and New York City, 35 Black cowboys and cowgirls traveled more than 200 miles to Freetown in Cortland County for a weekend on a farm — seeking fresh air, green countryside and good company.
Donn Hewes and Maryrose Livingston, co-owners of Northland Sheep Dairy in Freetown, hosted a weekend campout for the NYC Federation of Black Cowboys and the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, giving their young members a chance to explore a life outside of the streets they grew up on.
“There is a rich history of Black cowboys that is largely overlooked by white America, and these folks are the living embodiment of that history,” Livingston said.
The event came to fruition through the networking of friends — Molly Gore and Sam Liebert, of Kingston, and Tianna Kennedy, of Charlotteville — who first reached out to the groups at the beginning of the year. They asked for permission and assistance in organizing a virtual program to showcase African-Americans for Black History Month and later connected the organizations with the Northland Sheep Dairy farmers.
“They said they wanted to help us because they know we’re a struggling organization in New York City,” said Sheryl “Kesha” Morse, president of the NYC Federation of Black Cowboys.
Historians estimate that a quarter of American cowboys were Black, but the Western genre of movies and television don’t show that side of the story.
“Our mission is to educate the inner-city children about famous African-Americans that were influential in the West,” Morse said. “Like the Lone Ranger, that story was real about a Black marshal named Bass Reeves and it’s not told enough.”
The “clip-clop” of hooves against the dirt road Saturday morning alerted the campers to their first activity of the day. Two dozen youths, ages ranging from toddlers to high schoolers, clambered onto the flatbed pulled by two large, midnight black draft horses.
Ready to go on a tour of the farmland and take turns learning the reins (literally), the children chit-chatted about how for many of them this was their first time experiencing rural land like this.
“All this space out here, I love it,” said Ellis “El Dog” Ferrell, founder of Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. “I love it because these kids have never seen this much, never had this much space to run around. I’m trying to keep up with them. I’m enjoying it because this is my life.”
Horseback riding has been an integral part of Ferrell’s life since he was 8 years old, growing up on his grandmother’s farm in Tallahassee, Florida. Black-owned stables have existed on Fletcher Street in Philadelphia for more than a century, acting as a cornerstone for the Black urban cowboy community and a safe haven for many of the city’s youths.
“If you take a little bit of time with kids and get them with the horses, they’ll love it,” Ferrell said. “Working seven days a week, they get to learn how to respect horses and that causes them to learn responsibility — if they love it, and they respect it, then they’ll respect other people and themselves. They’ll take that with them in life — all you have to do is give them a chance.”
Several of the adults shared their concerns that this generation doesn’t get the chance to enjoy their youth the way they once did.
“That’s why I do what I do — I have a wonderful life and I want to show these kids that they could, too,” said Prince Thomas of Philadelphia. “They want to enjoy all of this, but they’re coming from the hood and they need all the help they can get. ‘Shower them with love’ is what I always say — shower them with love.”
Bringing people together from different communities and cultures for a weekend of camaraderie, Livingston and Hewes welcomed the cowboys with open arms and tables full of food. Many of the adults are past retirement age, and to feel at home and accepted from the very beginning was almost unheard of for these urban cowboys, Morse said.
“We’re in an environment that is strange to us, with people that are strange to us and not of our cultural backgrounds — and yet these people are so authentic that you can feel that, connect with that,” she said, with tears welling in her eyes. “We never felt uncomfortable or out of place, which is something that African-Americans have learned to live with on a regular basis.”
Hewes said he’s always believed that horses are a way to bring people together, and he was glad to have the opportunity to bring people out of the city to explore their shared interests despite their different cultural backgrounds.
“Maybe it’s just the fresh air, but everybody has the same harmony within their spirit,” said R.W. “Curly” Hall, of the Federation of Black Cowboys. “It helps the kids develop. They’re recognizing and seeing the land as it is with the greenery.”
It’s all about making memories, he said.
“You turn this into something which is the most valuable thing you can have when you’re older, when you can no longer run and jump or play,” Hall said. “With memories like they will have, it helps them grow.”