PHOENIX — Most images of the Wild West conjure up thoughts of gun-toting cowboys, horses, and shootouts. The faces typically associated with these images are of white men and those who portrayed them like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
There are forgotten players who helped settle the West. African American cowboys and cowgirls played a big part in keeping the Western spirit alive.
Sharon Fields, aka "Miss Tweedie," is up early on a warm Saturday morning, cleaning out a horse stable at Knight Ranch in Laveen. It's the perfect spot for a ranch, located in the foothills of South Mountain in Phoenix.
Surrounded by mountain views and away from taller city buildings. "I try to get here when the sun comes up, maybe 5:30, 6:00," Miss Tweedie said as she holds on to 'Lil Bit, a beautiful horse who's nudging her for some affection.
Miss Tweedie has been a cowgirl in her heart before she even got on a horse, recalling, "The parents got tired of me riding the chair across the floor, so they said 'we gotta do something with this girl' so they took me to a local stable and it started there, and it hasn't ended yet thank God."
That passion is alive with everyone you meet at Knight Ranch, an African American-owned ranch embodying the traditional Western dream. Owner David Knight always wanted to be a rancher and has lots of animals on his sprawling property. "Over the years I've had everything from sheep, goats, pigs, horses, cows," Knight says before commenting on the loud crows of the roosters roaming the grounds.
Black cowboys are nothing new. According to the Smithsonian, historians estimate one out of every four cowboys were African American when the West was being settled.
Growing up in Phoenix, Charles "Chaz" Jackson says he didn't know there were African Americans who lived and embraced the Wild West spirit.
Jackson said, "There's ranches out in Maricopa, Casa Grande, black cowboys here in Phoenix too-as well. And they would come out and be in the parades with their fancy Mexican saddles and everything and we just loved it."
The majority of Western classic movies showcased white cowboys on the range. Those ABC15 spoke with said it's not mainstream to think of African Americans as cowboys and ranchers. "John Wayne and the singing cowboy, and things like that and Clint Eastwood. That's what we saw, because Hollywood wasn't going to show that we were even involved in this," Miss Tweedie said.
That is why movies like "Buck and The Preacher," a 1970s western starring Oscar winner Sidney Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte about two Black men in the Wild West, were so important. And so is passing on this history and way of the western life to the next generation.
While horse riding can get the younger people hooked, the experienced ranchers want them to know this is about putting in the work.
Knight said, "If they're really serious and interested in it-then we'll have them clean some stalls, get a chance to groom some horses. If they keep showing up and coming around, we'll put them on a horse."
Many of the group at the Knight Ranch plan to attend the upcoming Arizona Black Rodeo. It's been growing since its first event more than a decade ago. Producer Lanette Campbell said ticket sales are already outpacing previous years.
It's taking place at Westworld of Scottsdale Saturday, May 15. There are two shows scheduled. Tickets and more information can be found at AZBlackRodeo.com
Masks will be mandatory except in designated areas and the venue will be at 80% capacity for COVID safety.