Well into the 20th century, segregation was a fact of daily life in Texas. Black citizens were barred from attending many sporting events, couldn’t eat at certain restaurants and weren’t able to stay at many hotels.
This was particularly true in the Texas prison system, where there were segregated work crews, barbershops, showers and dining halls. Recreational activities were also traditionally segregated by race, from sports teams to glee clubs.
So while researching my book “Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo,” I was surprised to find that, as far back as the 1930s, African-American and white convicts were permitted to compete in the same rodeos, despite the fact that spectators had to sit in segregated grandstands as they watched their favorite cowboys risk life and limb.
Decades before they had the same opportunity in other sporting events across Jim Crow America, the rodeo offered African-American inmates a rare chance to compete against their white counterparts.
The brainchild of the Texas prison system general manager Marshall Lee Simmons, the prison rodeo began its 50-plus year run in 1931 at Huntsville State Penitentiary. It was originally supposed to entertain the local prison community and correctional officers. But so many locals began showing up that Simmons realized that if they began charging gate fees, money could be raised to help fund education, recreation and medical programs for prisoners at a time when the Texas state legislature had allocated few resources for inmates beyond basic food and lodging.
The rodeo took place every Sunday in October between 1931 and 1986 (except 1943, when it was canceled due to the war) and lasted about two hours. Except for the most incorrigible inmates, all prisoners had the opportunity to attend one October Sunday show each year, and prison administrators even developed a protocol to bus them to Huntsville from the far corners of the Texas prison system.
The prison rodeo mimicked professional rodeos in that the main events featured saddle bronc riding. But in order to draw bigger crowds, organizers added more dangerous events, like chariot racing and wild horse racing, and invented sideshows steeped in racist caricatures: comedy sketches that featured the exaggerated pratfalls of black entertainers and performances by the Cotton Pickers Glee Club, a troupe of singers selected from the prison’s farm units.
The event also added celebrity appearances to increase attendance, including cultural icons Tom Mix, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Johnny Cash. (This was the first prison Cash ever performed at.) The rodeo became so popular that the arena needed to expand, and by the 1950s, the Huntsville arena could accommodate 30,000 spectators at a time.
“They don’t draw the color line”
Beyond the spectacle and the swelling crowds, one journalist in 1936 observed a particularly notable aspect of the prison rodeo: “They don’t draw the color line in these contests,” he wrote, “Negro and white convicts being equally free to enter.”
In mid-20th-century Texas, that was a big deal.
In fact, during the 1950s, Texas would implement more new segregation laws than in any prior decade. Amendments to the state penal code required that public facilities be segregated by race, from state parks to tuberculosis wards. Voters were still required to pay poll taxes, and anyone who entered an interracial marriage could be sentenced to two years in prison.
Until the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education — which outlawed de jure racial segregation — the Texas prison rodeo was, as far as I’ve been able to discover in research, the only competitive sporting event in the South that wasn’t segregated.
It was so popular among black Texans that families would trek to Huntsville from across the state, filling the colored sections of stands. Ebony magazine, the country’s leading African-American periodical, took notice.
“Contrary to customary practices in the Southland,” one article noted, “the Prison Rodeo is not a segregated competition and usually a fourth of the contestants are Negroes.”
The February 1953 edition featured a photograph of a black couple trying on souvenir cowboy hats. In an interview, the couple said they had driven more than 100 miles from Port Arthur to Huntsville to take in the spectacle “Because of the great number of Negro participants in the annual rodeo.”
Over the years, many of the most talented riders — the winners of the coveted Top Hand Buckle — were black convicts. They include Willie Craig, who won the Top Hand Buckle in 1976 at the age of 56, and Emmett “Lightning” Perry and Alex Hill, who never won the top award.
But the best was the legendary O'Neal Browning, whom Ebony lavished with coverage.
At six feet 180 pounds, he was an imposing presence. He had witnessed his first prison rodeo event as a free man in 1946. Three years later, he’d have the opportunity to compete after being sentenced to life in prison for murdering his father with an axe.
By the 1970s, he had won the Top Hand Buckle a record seven times, despite having only one thumb. In one interview, Browning was matter-of-fact about the injury: He explained that while steer roping, his left thumb got caught in the rope loop and “When the steer jerked, it pulled it completely off.”
He enjoyed sharing this story with younger convict cowboys, usually noting that he was lucky it wasn’t his right thumb: If he’d lost that, he would have lost the ability to grip the rigging when he rode bulls, which he managed to do with only one thumb well into his fifties.
Browning would never get a chance to test his skills outside the prison walls. But other convict cowboys with lighter sentences had little chance of continuing their careers upon their release. In order to compete, they needed the blessing of the Rodeo Cowboy Association (RCA), which prohibited riders with a criminal record.
The Texas Prison Rodeo’s run came to an end in 1986, when the prison board in Austin finally pulled the plug, citing falling revenue and fears of injury lawsuits.
Yet to this day, its biggest legacy is one tinged with irony. Only within the walls of a prison arena were social barriers that existed in the free world able to be toppled.