OAKLAND, Calif. — The parade rolled into downtown Oakland last Saturday just as it does every year, a long, undulating chain of youth groups and dance troupes, drill teams and color guards — and, of course, the cowboys.
Some ride solo, others in posses, their horses clip-clopping past office buildings. They smiled as they tipped their 10-gallon hats to the appreciative crowds lining the street. Big-belt-buckled, chaps-wearing, spurs-a-jingling cowboys — black cowboys, and plenty of them.
The 29th annual Black Cowboys Parade celebrates a largely forgotten chapter of African-American heritage: the enormous role black men and women played in shaping the Old West.
But there was something missing from this year’s parade: namely George Rothman, the 87-year-old Brooklyn-born Jew who helped start the Black Cowboys Association and has been a leader in keeping its parade a going concern.
Age has taken its toll on Rothman. He said that his feet were bothering him, and that it is hard to find the stamina the parade requires. In the past two years Rothman has stepped back from hands-on management of the parade; he is now a sort of director emeritus of the Black Cowboys Association.
But his legacy of dedication to the event and the heritage it commemorates is well known in the community. Oakland’s representative in Congress, Democrat Barbara Lee, called Rothman “an Oakland treasure.”
Although Rothman has become a local icon of sorts as a result of his work to promote awareness of this overlooked heritage, it is not as if he had some childhood fascination with black cowboys. Indeed, Rothman said, he did not even know there were black cowboys until the early 1970s, by which time he was more than a half-century old.
“I had never even heard of their existence,” Rothman recalled, explaining that all the cowboys he had ever read about or seen in movies were white.
But then Rothman’s background hardly makes him an obvious candidate to head a group dedicated to black cowboys. He was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the oldest of three siblings. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants, his father a presser in the garment industry and a union man who clearly influenced his son.
His father died when Rothman was only 17, and his mother went to work, with Rothman following soon after, clerking at Mays department store — a job he said he soon lost by trying to organize his fellow workers.
After a stint with a Navy Seabee construction battalion in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Rothman returned home to Brooklyn. He got married — he and his wife Beatrice are still together — and went into business as a hot dog vendor, opening his first stand in Harlem. Business was good, and after a few years he had three additional stands in Brooklyn. But he lacked passion for hot dogs.
Following his mother’s death in 1965, he moved his family to Oakland, where a cousin got him a short-lived job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Trying to sell encyclopedias to poor black families in Oakland, however, did not make much sense to him, he said. Soon he struck off on his own as a business consultant and community activist, including a 20-year stint as director of Blacks Unified to Motivate Progress, or BUMP, a West Oakland community and civil rights group that oversaw projects ranging from construction of senior citizens’ housing to food stamp distribution.
BUMP was modeled on the work of pioneering community organizer and leftist political activist Saul Alinsky, a Chicago Jew who worked tirelessly for the economically disadvantaged and racially oppressed. Rothman did not found BUMP, but came to it early and found it a good fit for him.
“I felt, here was a people that were even worse off than the Jews,”’ he said of the black community. “And I am against the establishment, period. I believe in a form of government that helps the many and doesn’t give to the few.”
He said his work was motivated by parallels between the economically and socially disadvantaged black community and the history of his own people. Although he never has been very religious, he said he identifies strongly as a Jew and never forgets “we’ve been kicked from pillar to post… and we’re still not accepted.”
Rothman also got involved with the Oakland Museum, where during a museum board meeting someone brought up the issue of black cowboys. “Nobody really knew anything about it,” he recalled.
But, as Rothman learned, blacks had played an enormous role in the Old West. Among the ranks of black cowboys were larger-than-life personalities such as Jesse Stahl, a bronco-buster who occasionally wowed rodeo crowds in the early 20th century by riding his bucking mounts backwards; Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, who worked his way across the West before earning his name in a South Dakota roping and shooting contest in 1876, and “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, a turn-of-the-century mail carrier who earned a reputation with her six-shooters and her fists.
Indeed, when Rothman first learned about black cowboys, some black men and women were still riding herd in rural communities just an hour from Oakland.
“Why was black history of this type not in our history books?” Rothman asked. “We found out later that one out of four cowboys in America had been black.”
As he learned about the black cowboys, he said, it seemed to him that the black community was being deprived of a fascinating part of its heritage. “It angered me, but I’m an angry person,” he said.
He and others moved to rectify the situation. Thus was born the Black Cowboys Association. With support from local businessmen, the first parade was staged in 1975. In later years, Rothman was tireless in raising money for the parade and the association’s other activities.
Rothman said he is saddened that the Black Cowboys Parade has not been more successful at drawing spectators of other ethnicities, who he assumes are still put off by West Oakland’s reputation for crime even though he said the parade has never seen a violent altercation. Many people harbor racism in their hearts, said Rothman, but he sees his own work with the parade as pointing the way to a better future.
“If I can feel the way that I do today, there may be three people tomorrow that feel the same way that I do, and six in five years,” he said. “It’s both a matter of education and living with one another. We inhabit the same earth.”