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MLK Jr. Heritage Rodeo spotlights influence of Black cowboys on Western culture

For nearly 40 years, the MLK Jr. Heritage Rodeo has shown Colorado how Black cowboys and cowgirls shaped, and continue to shape, Western culture.

DENVER — The Bill Pickett MLK Jr. Heritage Rodeo has been a safe space for Black cowboys and cowgirls for nearly 40 years, but the annual Denver event might not have happened without one man and his vision.

"It was started by my deceased husband, Lu," says CEO and producer Valeria Howard-Cunningham, reflecting on the founding of the country's only touring Black rodeo.

Lu Vason, a promoter in the entertainment industry, founded the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo shortly after a trip to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1977.

"When he was there, it was his first rodeo, " Howard-Cunningham said. "When he was there, he realized he didn’t see any cowboys or cowgirls that looked like him. It piqued his interest."

It was in that moment that Vason decided to create an all-African American rodeo association to bring important pieces of history to light, while providing safe space to those who continue Western culture traditions. The rodeo now tours the country. Its annual Denver event, the MLK Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo, happens Monday night at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo.

"You would be surprised how many people really don’t know that Black cowboys and cowgirls exist," Howard-Cunningham said.

Through research and historical study, Vason discovered that not only did Black cowboys exist in the Wild West, they actually shaped the course of Western culture.

"They called it bulldogging back in the day, but now it’s called steer wrestling," said cowboy and competitor Maurice Wade. "That’s the only event in rodeo that they can trace back to it’s origin. And it was created by a Black man, by the name of Bill Pickett."

Wade's first time competing in rodeo also happened to be the first Bill Pickett Invitational, though the road to the arena was long.

Wade's experience with cowboy work began back in Mississippi in the 1950s. He spent his childhood summers helping his grandfather with farm work, riding an old mule, pretending to be the cowboys he saw in the television Westerns.

After serving in Vietnam, Wade worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While on assignment in Yellowstone National Park, Wade took up horse riding again, enticing him to a part-time job at a stable in Denver.

"The next thing you knew, I had a horse, a raggedy old trailer, and a raggedy pickup truck, and I was going to roping competitions," Wade said.

Wade is now an accomplished calf roper and a Bill Pickett committee member, and he said he finds comfort in his lifelong love.

"I’m here every day," he said. "And it’s peaceful. It’s quiet. I have a real issue relaxing and sleeping because of Vietnam."

What he wants to do now is take everything gifted to him through rodeo and pay it forward to the future, he said.

"We have the Bill Pickett Scholarship Fund. A lot of our kids are going on and getting degrees, and that does my heart so much good to see that," Wade said with tears in his eyes. "That opportunity wasn't always there for us."

While the Bill Pickett team is there to uplift the Black community and provide new opportunities for kids, it's also there to provide space for community togetherness.

"When you go to that rodeo on the 16th, the people you meet, the people you’ll be surrounded with, all that love and compassion is just going to spew into you," Wade said.

Whether you go to the Bill Pickett MLK Junior Heritage Rodeo with intent to learn, or just to have fun, Wade said he hopes that most of all, you come for community.

"I went to Vietnam to fight for our liberties," he said. "To see the world — I’ve never seen the world so divided. I would love for us to come together like the cowboy community and show respect and love."

> Video below: Drone video of Maurice Wade riding on a ranch near Bennett:

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