Portland Has a New Black Rodeo

The 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo is happening on June 17 in Oregon’s biggest city.

Two Black cowgirls with a horse

Ivan McClellan, a photographer and founder of 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo, has been documenting Black cowboy culture since 2015.

Photo by Ivan McClellan

Rodeos happen across the United States, and there are several that honor Black cowboy culture in states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. But it’s rare to see a Black rodeo in the Pacific Northwest, and in Oregon, there hasn’t been a major Black rodeo in recent history.

On June 17, the brand-new 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo will make its home in Portland, Oregon. Though few rodeos are accessible by train from a major city, visitors can take the MAX Light Rail about half an hour from downtown Portland directly north to the Expo Center, which typically hosts conventions, local sporting events, and sometimes performances like Cirque du Soleil.

Well-established rodeos tend to give attendees a familiar experience year after year, but 8 Seconds has an opportunity to make a fresh start. “Being in Portland, nobody’s really gonna have a clue what’s going on,” said Ivan McClellan, photographer and creator of 8 Seconds. “I think a lot of the fans are gonna have on their first pair of boots that they’ve ever worn, and they’re gonna leave with sore feet at the end of the night.”

Portland is best known for its urban offerings like craft breweries and art galleries. And while the city offers easy access to nature, most of Portland’s outdoorsy visitors are more into hiking than the bareback riding, roping, barrel racing, bull riding, and bulldogging (aka steer wrestling) that will happen at 8 Seconds.

These events are rodeo staples, as are barbecue, beer, blues, and country music. 8 Seconds is taking that formula and refashioning it for Portland’s Black community. There will be Ghanaian food from Black Star Grill, barbecue from Felton and Mary’s, and a VIP bar serving handmade cocktails. The music will be hip-hop and R&B from DJ O.G.ONE, who is the official DJ of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. “We’re not gonna play the music that they play in the South,” said McClellan.

Rider holding a flag on horseback at a Black Rodeo

Ivan McClellan’s photography has been shown at the Portland Art Museum.

Photo by Ivan McClellan

Originally from Kansas, McClellan discovered Black rodeos at age 33 in 2015, when a visit to the Roy LeBlanc Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma inspired him to document Black cowboy culture through his photography. He now lives in Portland, and while he doesn’t own a horse and doesn’t compete in rodeos, he’s still dedicated to the community, and his photography has been shown at the Portland Art Museum.

In 2022, Vince Jones-Dixon, a city councilor from the nearby suburb of Gresham, proposed to McClellan the idea of a rodeo aligned with Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday that honors when enslaved people were freed in Texas, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Jones-Dixon said he wants to introduce a new audience to the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding as well as grow the region’s tourism through events. “I’m looking forward to what happens after the fact,” he said about continuing the rodeo into the future. “This is in the hearts and minds of so many people here in Oregon, and the athletes as well.”

McClellan’s initial response to creating a rodeo in Portland was, “No, that’s insane.” The Portland Expo Center is not an established rodeo ground, so he’d have to haul in dirt, fencing, and bleachers to make the event come together. But after thinking about it some more, McClellan decided, “That’s exactly what’s needed.”

Two people standing on horses

Staple rodeo events like bareback riding, roping, barrel racing, bull riding, and bulldogging will happen at 8 Seconds.

Photo by Ivan McClellan

In addition to the traditional rodeo events, McClellan—who will be the rodeo’s announcer—plans to have young attendees come up and read the stories of Black pioneers over the loudspeaker throughout the day. For example, people will get to know more about Letitia Carson, one of Oregon’s first Black landowners, and bronc rider Jesse Stahl, who in the early 20th century was under-ranked in his impressive rodeo performances because he was Black. McClellan also wants attendees to learn more about the rodeo’s location, which is in a part of North Portland that was once a historic Black community called Vanport, whose residents were displaced by a flood in 1948.

To inspire the youngest generation to carry on the tradition of Black horsemanship, 8 Seconds will award scholarships to five kids in attendance for a year of horseback riding lessons. “All the athletes this year are coming in from out of town,” said McClellan, “and our vision is that in 5 to 10 years, we’ll have some local-grown athletes who grew up riding up here, who learned to rodeo with the 8 Seconds Rodeo.”

He adds, “It’s a very inspiring moment for young people to see these Black cowboys in their city and realize this is a part of their culture. This is something that they can go and do themselves.”

General admission tickets to the 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo on June 17, 2023, are $42, and VIP tickets are $160. Doors open at 3 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m.

Sarah Enelow-Snyder is a writer from Texas, based in New Jersey. She has an essay in the anthology Horse Girls from Harper Perennial.
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