Imagine. You’re standing on the century-old, red-bricked Main Street in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s January and chilly, but not excessively so. Cold enough for onlookers around you to pull hats down tight on their heads, but warm enough to remain outside for an hour or more as a steady stream of horses and riders clop past, part of a 112-year-old tradition that, each year, kicks off the 23-day Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.
Group after group has paraded by, some in full uniform, others more casual—this is the “All Western Parade,” when dozens of riding clubs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area strut their stuff. Suddenly, a new troop appears, one with such unity and style that a little charge ripples through the air. Maybe your eye first catches on what appear to be black-and-white striped leg warmers stretching up the legs of a handsome brown horse, all high tail and sinuous muscle. Possibly it’s the straight-backed riders atop black leather saddles, each cowboy and cowgirl adorned with black leather chaps, black leather vest, starched white shirts with pearl buttons, western bow ties, and black “silver belly” riding hats, nicknamed after the “silver bellies” of the beavers whose pelts were once used.
You join in as the crowd shouts and whistles and applauds. The riders pause, the horses gleam, a black-and-white flag ruffles in the wind. Meet Circle L 5, Fort Worth’s first all-Black riding club.
This parade, this pride-filled ride, is a sacred part of Circle L 5’s traditions: They first marched along this street nearly 70 years ago. Though the All Western Parade is among the 95-member club’s annual highlights, Circle L 5 has many missions. Members ride in rodeos throughout the country, including on the Cowboys of Color circuit, and join the many trail rides in the Dallas–Fort Worth area (some of which trace remnants of historical trails). They care for their horses, build community through social gatherings and outreach, and, critically, educate the children of Texas about the real legacy of the cowboy—the U.S. history that was not always part of the agreed-upon fable of yore.
Says Mattie Mitchell, known as Ms. Mattie, Circle L 5 club historian: “A lot of people don’t know that Black cowgirls and cowboys exist.”
Welcome to Cowtown
To have an inkling of what a riding club means in Fort Worth, first you must understand the city’s equine-and-cattle legacy. This here is Cowtown, the place where between the heady, hoofy years of 1866 and 1890—the post–Civil War era when cattle driving began in earnest—more than 4 million head of cattle were moved through the city.
Much of that cattle driving took place on the Chisholm Trail, the 800-mile trail leading from San Antonio to Yankee territory in central Kansas. At the end of the Civil War, Texas was rich in nothing, really, but it had cattle—specifically wild Texas longhorns, prized for their hardiness, their ease in handling, and famous for those incredible horns, which can reach up to 104 inches in length. There wasn’t much of a market in over-saturated Texas, where longhorns sold for a meager $2 or less per cow, but ranchers up north were willing to pay up to $40 per animal. This difference in price would change the future of Texas: Ranching and cattle driving would go on to become a million-dollar industry, bringing gold into the hands of thousands of Texans. To make that happen, each spring, teams of 10 to 12 cowboys would drive herds of 2,500 cattle north to Kansas. Zoom back in time and hover above this mini migration, and you might see two straight miles of longhorn after longhorn, flanked by cowboys sprinkled across those two miles.
A typical drive took five grueling months, and Fort Worth was the last major stop in Texas, making the city a necessity for drovers: cowboys who drove livestock to market. By the thousands, they would descend on the city in need of food, supplies, and a bed in which to rest their weary bones before embarking on the three-plus-months journey ahead.
This here is Cowtown, the place where between the heady, hoofy years of 1866 and 1890 . . . more than 4 million head of cattle were moved through the city.
In 1876, the city’s cattle fortunes changed once again: The rail system, which had been steadily expanding throughout the United States since construction began in 1830, reached Texas. And Fort Worth was a major hub. Suddenly, drovers from San Antonio didn’t need to trudge the 800-plus miles north. They only needed to cover 250 miles to Fort Worth and the trains would take it from there. (Though 250 miles is still nothing to sneeze at when you can only cover 10 to 15 miles per day with grazing cattle.) This created a new problem, however: They needed a place to keep those cattle awaiting their ride out.
Enter the Fort Worth Stockyards, the city’s most notable legacy of this cattle heyday. Built on a gamble in 1887, the stockyards included not only pens and barns, but also a Livestock Exchange Building, telegraph offices and railroad offices, and, in 1908, the Cowtown Coliseum, which would go on to host the first indoor rodeo. The Stockyards grew to be so influential that, at their most prominent, they were dubbed the “Wall Street of the West.” At the height of World War I, the Stockyards were the “largest horse and mule market in the world.”
But as the mid-20th century rolled around and roads replaced rails and trucks replaced trains, offering a cheaper and more flexible way to move livestock, the Stockyards shriveled in influence, as did the ecosystem that had sprung up around it. Meat-packing plants closed; buildings were demolished. As Fort Worth grew and prospered and residents forgot about the city’s cattle heyday, the Stockyards clung on, with one of the plants repurposed as, first, a restaurant, and until 2017, headquarters for the oil company XTO energy.
In 1976, Cowtown saviors came along in the form of Charlie and Sue McCafferty, a couple who lamented the history that was disappearing. Sue was, by all accounts, a passionate, tenacious woman—a former union organizer and mother of three. When she met Charlie, a firefighter and powerhouse in the local Democratic party, in the ’60s, he opened her eyes to the world of activism, or so the story goes. Together, the pair focused on the Stockyards, which at that time were in danger of being turned into a “glorified amusement park,” said Sue in a 1993 profile.
The McCaffertys swiftly founded the North Fort Worth Historical Society, an organization that seeded the idea for the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, and brought about the restoration of several buildings, including the crumbling Livestock Exchange Building. Charlie became a historian who gave walking tours of the district and Sue served as president of the society for 25 years and helped build the first visitor center. They were so influential that the couple have their very own star on the Texas Trail of Fame in the Stockyards, right next to Sid R. Richardson, a Fort Worth philanthropist (and friend of Eisenhower’s).
Today, Fort Worth is a thoroughly modern city with skyscrapers and boutique hotels, artisanal coffee and startups, and all the other things you expect of a contemporary metropolis: a modern art museum designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando; the mural-decorated South Main neighborhood. But the city has retained a fierce connection to its roots. There are more than 80 riding clubs within the 9,200-square-mile Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. Less than five miles from downtown, the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame, the Multicultural Western Heritage Museum, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Cattle Raisers Museum, and the Bull Riding Hall of Fame all celebrate the city’s Cowtown roots in distinct ways. (At the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, for example, you can ogle Annie Oakley’s gun and gaze up at a bronze sculpture of Sacagawea.) Most importantly, the Stockyards still stand, now as a 98-acre historic district, complete with a museum and—famously—the Fort Worth Herd.
Helmed by cattle boss Kristin Jaworski, every day at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., a half-dozen cowgirls and cowboys drive 17 Texas longhorn down the red-bricked Exchange Avenue, surrounded by the low-lying buildings that comprise the Stockyards. Scrap everything you picture: These cowboys and cowgirls weren’t plucked from a John Wayne western.
“We pride ourselves on being historically accurate, so everything from our clothing to our saddles are replicas of what they would have used in the late 1800s,” Jaworski says. All drovers wear boots, a button-up shirt, a vest, chaps, and a wild rag—the cowboy name for a bandanna—around their neck, with some Hispanic drovers wearing wider-brimmed hats to reflect what vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) would have worn in the 19th century.
Despite the Hollywoodization of western culture, which presented viewers with cowboys like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper, who were predominantly white, the trails were much more diverse, Jaworski says. By extension, “Diversity in our team is equally important,” she adds. “Up to a third of cattle drovers along the trail in our area represented different backgrounds . . . African American, Hispanic, Mexican vaqueros, women, Native American.” And that is the history that Circle L 5 wants to preserve—and share.
“Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book,” Maya Angelou once said. “Just U.S. history.”
The Real Beginning
The history of Black cowboys is a long one, dating back to the 17th century and as thorny as anything involving race in this country. The injustices are many—too many to account for here, but included such discriminatory practices as banning Black men and women from owning horses and, during slavery, requiring Black riders to get permission before riding a horse at all.
This story picks up in the summer of 1866, a year after the formerly enslaved of Texas had been freed (though true freedom would take more than a century and arguably still hasn’t been reached). It was also, notably, the year after the 13th amendment—banning slavery—was ratified, and the year that marked the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared that “all people born in the United States were U.S. citizens and had certain unalienable rights.”
Given the ranching culture of the Southwest, many Texans who were formerly enslaved had vast experience with cattle, horses, and the heavy labor required to wrangle longhorns. And that skill was in high demand. “Cowboys, lots of cowboys were needed to round up the cattle and to catch and tame the horse necessary to take the herds to market,” wrote Sara R. Massey in Black Cowboys of Texas.
It’s not that race had disappeared—in her book, Massey recounts the prejudice Black cowboys continued to face—but the need for trained cowboys was greater. By some estimates, 25 percent of the thousands of cowboys who worked the trails between 1866 and 1890 were Black.
“Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book,” Maya Angelou once said. “Just U.S. history.”
One of those cowboys was the legendary Bose Ikard. Ikard’s story was enshrined in the character of Joshua Deets, played by Danny Glover, in the 1980s miniseries Lonesome Dove. His life is also shared as part of the educational program of the Fort Worth Herd taught to 20,000 Texas school kids each year, and in books like Massey’s Black Cowboys of Texas.
Born into slavery in 1847, Ikard reached his freedom at the end of the Civil War and went on to befriend Charles Goodnight, a famed rancher and the inventor of the chuck wagon. (Chuck wagons were considered the life force and “home” of any drive, used to carry food and supplies, with a fold-out table used to prep on the back.) Ikard was a key member of the pioneering drives to Colorado, on a route soon dubbed the Goodnight-Loving Trail after his friend, Goodnight, and rancher Oliver Loving, who also helped craft the route and died soon after during an attack on the trail. Ikard spent four hard years on the trail alongside Goodnight before eventually settling in Parker County, Texas.
Despite consistent Hollywood attempts to romanticize the cowboy life, in truth, it was exhausting, arduous, and backbreaking work. Drovers faced rattlesnakes, panthers, bobcats, bears, thirst, lack of food, and long, merciless days in the sun—among other trials and tribulations. But the simple fact that everyone, regardless of race or gender, suffered equally helped level the playing field—slightly. (Black cowboys were still paid less than the $1 per day white cowboys earned.)
“The journeys were long and dangerous, and whether you were Black, white, or Mexican, you slept in the same spaces, ate the same food, performed the same tasks, and took the same risks,” says Marcellus “Mo” Anderson, Circle L 5’s current president. “Those who survived the journeys formed bonds that lasted a lifetime.”
Riding into the Roots
You could say that the Black cowboys who braved the trail began the march toward greater acceptance, though it would take many years for that acceptance to come.
Circle L 5’s story, for example, isn’t a story of segregation, but it starts near there. In 1949, a group of equestrians formed a small riding club, calling themselves the Silver Saddles after the ornate silver work on their saddles. The founding visionary, Ed “Pop” Landers, launched the club because he “wanted to be able to ride as a Black cowboy in any parade or rodeo he desired,” Anderson says.
As more people signed on, the five founding members—in addition to Pop Landers, there was John Farrell, Scott Farrell, Shirley Sanders, and W.D. Warrick—realized it was getting expensive to add silver to the saddles each time a member joined. The group sat down outside to brainstorm new ideas, Anderson says, Pop with a stick in his hand. Slowly, Pop carved a circle in the dirt and something clicked. Five men. A circle, the symbol of continuity, of evolution, of unity. Someone—it’s lost to history now—suggested an “L” to honor Landers as the founder. It’s not hard to imagine the five men looking up and grinning: This is it.
And so the newly named Circle L 5 decided it was time to take the club to the big leagues: specifically, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, a Texas tradition dating back to 1896. It was January, 1951 or ’52—it’s hard to remember when. The club showed up at the iconic Will Rogers Memorial Center, where the Stock Show has been held every year since 1944, decked out in the exact uniforms they wear today, 70 years later. They were ready to ride.
Five men. A circle, the symbol of continuity, of evolution, of unity.
At this time, segregation still gripped Texas. It was the early ’50s, roughly four years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision that attempted to integrate schools, and more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which sought to end segregation in public spaces. And so, while the club was ready to ride, Texas wasn’t ready for them to do so.
“They were ordered out of the arena and talked badly to,” Ms. Mattie says. “So they knew then what they had to do: They had to fight for their rights—what they believed in.”
One of the excuses for barring Circle L 5 from participating in that particular show was its lack of a charter, an official paper that outlines what the riding club is about. So the founding members headed for Austin, got chartered, got their papers, and then went back the next year to knock on the proverbial door.
As they had the previous year, Stock Show officials ordered the club out of the Coliseum. But when club members showed their papers, the show was forced to accept them. Rules were rules, and at that time, the rules merely stated that a club must be chartered. “And there was the beginning of the acceptance,” says Ms. Mattie, “and those who paved the way for us.”
Carrying the Torch
In the decades since Circle L 5’s founding fathers fought for their rights to ride, multiple organizations have popped up to support Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous riders, as well as to preserve what history remains after years of whitewashing.
The Southwestern Colored Cowboys Association is one of the first minority rodeo organizations, created in the late 1940s, right as the constellation of Circle L 5 was forging. Developed in response to racism that prevented Black riders from joining the big rodeos, the organization would go on to foster “some of the greatest talent in the sport’s history,” wrote Christian Wallace in a 2018 profile of Myrtis Dightman, the first Black cowboy to be named the number one bull rider in the world. (His victory took place in 1967, exactly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the “color line” in baseball, earning Dightman the nickname the “Jackie Robinson of Rodeo.”)
Today, there’s also the Cowboys of Color Rodeo, which Cleo Hearn inaugurated in 1971 to “bring diverse cultures together to celebrate our collective American Western Heritage.” There’s the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth (formerly known as the National Cowboys of Color Museum Hall of Fame), which seeks to offer a true perspective on the history of the American West. And, more and more, there are riding clubs devoted to riders of color, including the California-based Comptown Cowboys and the Cowgirls of Color—and, of course, Circle L 5.
Since those early days, Circle L 5 is, by all accounts, a tight-knit group. It seems, from the outside, that once people join the stables at 6025 Wilbarger Street, a quiet corner just steps from Lake Arlington, they don’t leave. Club members Willie and Minnie Strawther purchased the nine-acre lot in the early ’80s and offered to board the club’s horses, says their daughter, Tammy Sanders (no relation to founding member Shirley Sanders), who joined the club at 18 and says she was “instantly attracted to the sense of family and comradery.”
Horses, of course, are the main draw, and most members were drawn to them from a young age, including Ms. Mattie.
She grew up around horses—her grandmother had some on her farm, and one of Ms. Mattie’s uncles was president of the riding club in Waco, Texas—but it was the Stock Show parade that really rocked young Mattie’s world. “I would see all these beautiful horses and this participation,” she says, “and it just went in my spirit, in my blood. [I wanted] to be a part of it—to be a cowgirl.”
She didn’t join Circle L 5, however, until she was a young woman when a friend told her about the club, specifiying that it was an all-Black riding club. Ms. Mattie attended an event and was impressed. The club, it turns out, was equally impressed with her. Soon after she joined, the reigning queen—the woman who represents the club to the public, dressing in a slightly more glamorous way than the other members—was ready to step down. Despite Ms. Mattie’s newcomer status, the club unanimously voted her as their next queen. “I did accept and that was my stronghold right there, from the very beginning,” she says. “I was inexperienced with it, but I did pretty good. I guess it just came natural.”
Ms. Mattie served as queen for 15 years, sewing most of her own outfits—including a black sequined number with fringed sleeves and pants, and white boots with silver fringe—going on to win the queen competition at the Okmulgee Rodeo in Oklahoma City for seven years running.
“I would see all these beautiful horses and this participation,” Ms. Mattie says, “and it just went in my spirit, in my blood. [I wanted] to be a part of it—to be a cowgirl.”
Despite the matriarchal status of the queen, when Ms. Mattie joined the club, there were only five or six women involved with the club. “We would always want more females,” she says, “but a lot of them were afraid of horses or didn’t think they could do it, or whatever the case may be.” But in recent years, the club’s female membership has grown tenfold, thanks to members like her. Of the club’s current 95 members—spanning from kindergarteners to septuagenarians—nearly 50 percent are women.
For Ms. Mattie, it’s a heartening change, and she believes there’s a direct line between representation and that change. Years ago, she was riding in a parade in the Black community of Lake Como, about six miles from Fort Worth. An onlooker, a woman, was waving to Ms. Mattie, as if she wanted her to stop. So Ms. Mattie slowed down to hear what the woman had to say.
“She had five little girls with her, her grandkids, and she started preaching to them: ‘You see, you see? If she can do it, you can do it!’” Ms. Mattie says. “And then she said to me, ‘Baby, you keep this up on your horse because this is very inspiring to me and all the other little Black kids running around here.’ And that had such an impact on me.”
Culture of the Cowboy (and Cowgirl)
In 2001, Anderson, the club’s current president and a state police officer by trade, was in the middle of a routine traffic stop in Fort Worth when a man rode by on a horse and buggy. Anderson had grown up around horses, but it was casual. “We didn’t even have a saddle, we just used a holster or a bridle and rode [the horses] bareback,” he says.
Living in this metropolitan place, Anderson hadn’t thought it possible to connect with horses in any meaningful way. Until the horse and buggy clopped past. “I was like, oh my God, where is he going?” Anderson recalls. He quickly wrapped up his traffic stop and followed the horse and buggy until, eventually, it turned down a long dirt drive leading to a sprawl of whitewashed, red-roofed buildings: the stables of Circle L 5. Two weeks later, he joined the club.
Anderson visits his three horses—Socks, Honey, and a little two-year-old stud named Simba—twice a day, 365 days a year. He’s a member of the 10-member drill team, which performs shows full of crisscrossing and running and other fast-paced, intricate maneuvers. And while he’s held almost every position in the club, from uniform captain to drill team captain, for the past seven years, he has acted as club president. For Anderson, it seems almost a spiritual calling: “There’s nothing like going down to the horse barn, to where you can actually forget about all of the problems and the struggles that are going on in the world.”
A large part of that has to do with horsemanship, which he says goes far beyond animal training. To Anderson, horsemanship is the love and care of a horse, the special bond you build with him or her, and “getting the horse to respond the way you want him to . . . to where he actually enjoys doing what he is doing.”
Step deeper into a conversation with Anderson, and you’ll hit on another of the club’s core tenets: this idea that internal values are just as important, if not more so, than the animals. It’s not just about how you work with your horse, but also about how that teaches you to interact with the world. It’s about pride, dignity, unity.
That’s one of the aspects that team members try to impart to children they work with. Every year select members of the club travel to schools around the Fort Worth area. They spend time introducing kids to horses, explaining the skill and art involved with riding, sharing the history of the Black cowboy, and talking about the ways horsemanship can extend to every aspect of your life.
“Some of the best life lessons are learned in caring for horses,” says Tammy Sanders. “It teaches responsibility and how to care for and about others, builds confidence, and shows the importance of teamwork . . . and a strong work ethic.”
Circle L 5, Circa 2021
In a “normal” year, a “normal” February, Circle L 5 would be fresh off multiple performances in the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, which typically continues through the middle of the month. Its 10-member drill team would be celebrating another successful show after spending months practicing for the demanding performance and would likely have another award for Best Dressed, which the team has won for several years running.
This, of course, is not a normal year. The rodeos for most of 2020, and early 2021, were shuttered, the Stock Show canceled for only the second time in 125 years (the first was during World War II when show facilities were used to manufacture aircraft parts). But the club has continued to meet as they’ve always done, socially distancing at the stables, caring for their hundreds of horses. They’re looking to the future.
Later in 2021, maybe they’ll be able to rejoin the Cowboys of Color rodeo—which Circle L 5 has participated in for the past decade—or, in July, march down Lake Como Drive in the 80-plus-year-old Lake Como parade, a club favorite. But there’s no doubt Circle L 5 will continue, in part, because history must not be lost again.
“We don’t ever want [the club] to die out,” says Ms. Mattie. “Therefore we are keeping the legacy alive for the five Black men who started this—and gave us their name.”