London photographer John Ferguson remembers playing cowboys and Indians as a child. Only he and his black friends weren’t given any choices in the role they would play.
They were told they would have to be Native Americans and not cowboys, because there weren’t any black cowboys.
He couldn’t argue. The only cowboys he had ever seen were the white, square-jawed, American gun-slinging heroes in movies and television: The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood.
“The list is endless, and not a single black cowboy among them,” he says. “So Hollywood played a major role in keeping the myth alive about the Wild West.”
Years later, he was working on a project in the United States when he heard about a group called the New York Federation of Black Cowboys.
“At first, I thought it must be some kind of joke, a sideshow or circus act,” he says. When he found out it was a legitimate organization, his journalistic curiosity got the best of him.
Ferguson delved into research, unearthing little-known segments of American history. He learned that the term “cowboy” came out of the slavery days — from horse boy, kitchen boy, cabin boy, house boy — and, finally, a description for the freed slaves who found a better life on the open range where they experienced less discrimination. He discovered the stories of the black riders on the rodeo circuit — names such as Jessie Stahl, Nate Love, Bill Pickett — all of whom made legendary contributions to the sport and culture.
He learned about the relationships between Native American tribes and black African slaves brought here by Europeans, and the post-Civil War Negro Army battalions called “Buffalo Soldiers” because of their hair and fighting tenacity.
Enough of Hollywood perpetuating long-held stereotypes, Ferguson decided. He and British filmmaker Gregg McDonald launched their own project — a documentary called “The Forgotten Cowboys.”
So far, they’ve self-funded the venture, embarking on two three-week shooting expeditions to five Southern states. A short trailer is posted online to give a glimpse of what they’re trying to achieve (www.theforgotten cowboys.co).
The two men are now trying to raise the $30,000 it will take to complete the project, which also will include three individual video stories, a photographic exhibition and a photo book. Though Ferguson acknowledges it’s an ambitious undertaking, he believes it’s an important one.
“From the perspective of a black person, we’ve had a tendency to shy away from certain parts of history … it stirs up very unpleasant and painful stories,” he says. “Rarely does one hear about positive stories from history involving black people.”
At this point in his career as a photographer, Ferguson is determined to focus on issues that interest him personally, cultures that have been overlooked and policies and environments that should be highlighted.
“This project gives me a chance to do just that,” he says.