Compton Cowboys keep alive the history of African American contributions in the Old West and their commitment to youth in urban communities

6 mins read

The Wild Wild West isn’t a fairytale for those who grew up in Compton, California. In Hub City, there is a group that maintains the Black cowboy history, all the while, giving back to their community.

On any given day from Sunny Clove to West Athens Hills, Los Angeles’ inner city streets—too often represented by media stereotypes of bangers and cops—comes alive with the rhythmic clop of horseshoes on tar. When the cavalry arrives, neighbors who are young and old, come outside to the delight of mounted riders with boots and jeans, fades and fitted cowboy hats, shoulder-length locs and chest tattoos, or flowing braids and ripped jeans. The posse, Compton Cowboys, is from the Richland Farms neighborhood, a rural oasis snuggled inside of Compton.

Befitting it is to see Black cowboys. After all, Los Angeles was founded by Africans, Afro-Mexicans and Mestizos. But Richland Farms has a rich history. At one time, the initial all-white Compton changed to hold a strong Black middle-and-working class neighborhood when segregation kept African Americans from buying property on the west side of the city.

To date, Richland Farms is one of the first black-owned horse ranches in the U.S., and is home to the Black horse collective. For decades, South Los Angeles and its ancillary districts knew the cadre of kids on horses who rode through communities. Now they are adults with children of their own, and have turned their passion to being featured in fashion magazines and in films.

The de facto leader of Compton Cowboys, Randal Hook, who goes by Randy Savvy. Photos are courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.
. . . .
Carlton Hooks on horseback wearing a tee shirt with the signature logo of Compton Cowboys. Photos are courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.

The organization, consisting of lifelong friends, uses music, merchandise, fashion and horseback riding to bring awareness of Black cowboys. Yet, with all the glitz, they maintain their commitment to empower communities. 

Randy Savvy, the current Compton Cowboys leader, expanded his mission by reaching inner city youth through music. The activist, rapper and cowboy released his single and visual to accompany the project entitled, “Colorblind.” 

Beginning with the faint sound of police sirens and horse galloping, “Colorblind” brings to light life in Compton. “The song is a spiritual song . . . it is about us addressing what’s going on inside us,” says Savvy.

“This is an important record and moment for Black people. Our history matters, our culture matters, our Lives matter. I’m excited to be part of the next wave of artists making music with a healing message,” adds Savvy.

Let the healing begin.

. . . .
Anthony Harris stands on his horse at a shoot. Photos are courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.

To keep focus, the Compton Cowboys offer healthy recreational choices with classes at their ranch and meet ups around the city for youth south of the 10 Freeway. While they bang out bars and model, they pass on tradition and community-mindfulness.

“The @ComptonCowboys work to keep the young people of Compton in a situation that’s positive,” says comedian, DJ, actor and producer Ray Wood Jr.

In addition to being a model influence to their community, the Compton Cowboys made their voices heard by leading a Black Lives Matter “peace ride” in the wake of the George Floyd murder. In June, the group rode through Compton to signify their solidarity with movements throughout the country, and signal the need for ceasefires amongst local gangs.

Duke University’s Department of African American studies tweeted, “The presence of black cowboys and cowgirls at protests is a reclaiming of the traditional role of mounted riders in demonstrations in urban communities.”

. . . . 
Keiera Wade with her daughter, Taylor. Photo courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page

The tradition of riding horses in protests and parades spans back before the US was a country. Evidenced throughout the history of Native resistance and to ancient chariot riding in Rome and Egypt, the Compton Cowboys use it to reclaim their community, and make their presence known. In fact, they were part of several protests on horseback throughout the country during demonstrations. But, they are merely a continuum of American pioneers.

Black cowboys of the Old West were critical in carving out ranchero and equine culture in the Americas. In fact, Black cowboys were a major driving force, along with Mexicans in the south and south west, to cultivate the culture of ranches. Author of Black Cowboys of the Old West True, Sensational and Little – Known Stories from History, Tricia Martineau Wagner, stated that in the Old West, Cowboys came from a mixed racial heritage and socioeconomic background that included Hispanic, Black and White, rich, poor, educated and uneducated. 

So strong were the contributions of Black Cowboys, that after emancipation, their knowledge as wranglers was critical in the agribusiness of the US. In turn, herding cattle and raising horses became a viable means to pull themselves out of economically disadvantaged circumstances. They flourished beginning in 1866 during the time of the cattle trail industry. 

. . . .
Lamontre Hosley at Richland Farms. Photos are courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.

While owning a ranch was the high point of a cowboy’s career, very few Black cowboys ever surpassed the position of cook, whether on the trail or the ranch, according to Wagner. Yet and still, some persisted.

So strong were Black cowboys and cattlemen and women. To date, cattle ranching is the largest industry for Black farmers that carries a legacy of cowboy tradition.

Throughout the years, Black cowboys maintained their distinct culture with rodeos and exhibition shows. However, until recently, the term Black cowboy was either unheard of, or taboo in national histories. 

The National Farmers Union tweeted, “Though one in four cowboys in the Old West were Black, they have largely been erased from history…Modern Black cowboys are working to reclaim that history.”

American authors and filmmakers consistently left them out of narratives, and often used white men as the face of the expanding West. Regardless of their untold stories, Black cowboys were prominent figures during that time.

. . . .
Harris tending to one of the horses at Richland Farms. Photos courtesy of Facebook.

Using their predecessors’ commitment to remain in cattle ranching while keeping their history alive, the Compton Cowboys, a collective of bronco busters, employ cowboy culture and farming to drive productive activities for youth in urban communities. 

Notably, the Compton Cowboys provide a way out for inner city youth who have been impacted by gang life, or even come involved, another avenue. Founded in the early 1980’s by real-estate agent Mayisha Akbar, the Compton Cowboys was originally named the Compton Jr. Posse. For decades, she carved out programs for Richland farms to become a paradise for residents who want to replace their harsh realities with horseback riding, agriculture and the rich history of Black cowboys. 

“This world that we live in has the tendency to kind of drive you crazy sometimes,” says the Savvy in reflection.

Yet, the idea of being from Compton and a real live cowboy is crazy in itself. 

. . . .
Night shot in the neighborhood with Atkins. Photo courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.

The city of Compton came into prominence with rap group, NWA in the 1980s with their epic “F*ck the police.” In hip hop history, NWA is noted as gangster rappers, and ushering in an era of what was called “gangster rap.” While some of their content focused on the difficulties of young, Black men navigating disenfranchisement and police brutality in Los Angeles, NWA’s aesthetic, more than their lyrics, mimicked local Black gangs—from jheri curls to all black attire. 

Simultaneously to NWA’s rise was the crack epidemic and an ongoing war of territory to sell it between the Bloods and Crips. Compton, one of the few predominantly Black communities left in the city became ground zero for frequent skirmishes over streets most of the gang members, who were usually teenagers or in their early 20s, did not own.

Compton, and cities surrounding it such as Watts and Lynwood were flipped upside down overnight. Quiet communities, some still with southern charm became war zones. Many lives were lost in the gang and drug wars, while the tradition of Bloods and Crips remains a palpable reality for its residents.

Over the years, locals have worked to change the stigma and social-cultural-political makeup of Compton, which is now almost mostly Latino. But gangs remain and now include Mexican and Central American groups.

Regardless of Compton’s rocky past, the cowboys keep with their mission. So on any random day on Rosecrans, or at the corner of a liquor store, and even in front of a church with members leaving from bible study, you’ll still see the mounted Black cowboys clopping like royalty down South Los Angeles streets.

Known for his tricks and flair is Kenneth Atkins, or Stone Mane. Photos are courtesy of Compton Cowboys Facebook page.
Journalist established in 2001, inspired by transformative leads.

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