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Black Cowboys of Boulder: An Under-Told Story

Boulder’s history of the American West is rich with tales of cowboys, outlaws, and rugged frontiers, but the narrative has traditionally sidelined the significant contributions of Black cowboys. In Boulder, Colorado, the story of Black cowboys remains largely untold, woven into the fabric of the region yet often overlooked. This essay seeks to shed light on the under-told story of Black cowboys in Boulder, highlighting their contributions and challenges.

The involvement of Black individuals in the western cattle industry is substantial but frequently underrepresented in historical accounts. It is estimated that after the Civil War, one in four cowboys was Black, yet these figures rarely appear in popular media portrayals of cowboy culture. In Boulder, as in many parts of the West, Black cowboys played crucial roles in the development of the local ranching and agricultural industry.

The origins of Black cowboys in Boulder trace back to the post-Civil War era when many freed slaves moved west in search of work and freedom from the racial prejudices of the South. Boulder, with its burgeoning ranching industry, offered opportunities for these individuals. They worked as ranch hands, cattle herders, and horse trainers, integrating into the local economy yet facing significant racial discrimination.

One notable figure in Boulder’s cowboy history is Clarence Smalls, who arrived in Boulder in the late 19th century. Smalls was known for his exceptional skills in breaking horses and managing cattle. His reputation earned him a respected position among local ranchers, although societal norms of the time limited his recognition and upward mobility. Like many Black cowboys, Smalls’ contributions were essential to the operational success of the ranches but seldom acknowledged in historical records.

The life of a Black cowboy involved not only the hard, physical labor of ranching but also navigating the complex social hierarchies of the time. Black cowboys in Boulder often participated in local rodeos, showcasing their skills in roping and riding. These events were some of the few instances where they could gain recognition and respect from the wider community. However, segregation and racial prejudice still marred these events, with Black cowboys frequently having to compete on separate days or for lesser prizes.

Community was a crucial aspect for Black cowboys in Boulder. They often formed close-knit groups that provided support and camaraderie in an otherwise isolating environment. These communities helped preserve African American traditions and folklore, blending them with the cowboy culture of the West. Stories of Black cowboys, their music, and their unique style of dress contributed to the rich cultural tapestry of Boulder, though much of this heritage remains unrecognized.

In contemporary times, the legacy of Black cowboys is beginning to gain more acknowledgment. Local historians and cultural organizations in Boulder are making efforts to document and celebrate the contributions of these men. Initiatives such as the Black Cowboy Museum in Boulder and cultural festivals featuring the history and stories of Black cowboys help promote a more inclusive understanding of Boulder’s history.

The story of Black cowboys in Boulder is a testament to the complex history of the American West, marked by both hardship and resilience. Recognizing and honoring this history not only corrects the historical record but also enriches the cultural narrative of Boulder and the broader region. It is a narrative of perseverance, skill, and significant contributions made against the odds—an essential piece of the American story that deserves to be told.

Leonard Frieling Pen Of Justice Legal Blogger
  • Senior Counsel Emeritus to the Boulder Law firm Dolan + Zimmerman LLP : (720)-610-0951
  • Former Judge
  • Photographer of the Year, AboutBoulder 2023
  • First Chair and Originator of the Colorado Bar Association’s Cannabis Law Committee, a National first.
  • Previous Chair, Boulder Criminal Defense Bar (8 years)
  • Twice chair Executive Counsel, Colorado Bar Association Criminal Law Section
  • NORML Distinguished Counsel Circle
  • Life Member, NORML Legal Committee
  • Life Member, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar
  • Board Member Emeritus, Colorado NORML
  • Chair, Colorado NORML, 7 years including during the successful effort to legalize recreational pot in Colorado
  • Media work, including episodes of Fox’s Power of Attorney, well in excess of many hundreds media interviews, appearances, articles, and podcasts, including co-hosting Time For Hemp for two years.
  • Board member, Author, and Editor for Criminal Law Articles for the Colorado Lawyer, primary publication of the Colorado Bar Assoc. 7 Years, in addition to having 2 Colorado Lawyer cover photos, and numerous articles for the Colorado Lawyer monthly publication.
  • LEAP Speaker, multi-published author, University lectures Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, Denver University Law School, Univ. of New Mexico, Las Vegas NM, and many other schools at all levels.
  • http://www.Lfrieling.com
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