"In southeast Texas, you had a large number of blacks who were slaves and had been doing cow work. When freedom comes, it would be just as natural for them to begin to do that work," Searles says, adding that there was demand for cowboys. "They gained a degree of respect and independence."Some of those voices -- you swear are from Louisiana. This makes sense, since many of the cowboys were formerly slaves in East Texas.
The trail drives were a unique moment in history that brought together a diverse lot of men, including freed slaves and confederate war veterans. And, while some cowboy crews were segregated, photographs of others show black and white men working side by side in what Searles calls "range equality."
"In that environment, you want to have pretty good relations," he says. "Because that person could elect to help you or not help you in a dangerous situation."
It's thrilling and chilling to hear the actual voices of real cowboys from those days. I adored cowboys as a child, as did so many of us where and when I grew up. My dad and his friends modeled themselves on cowboys, the cowboys of popular western literature and the earlier western movies of trail drives. The cowboy was the figures of the hero for us all. Of course we never thought of what the real cowboy was, nor that so many of them were black.
I recall so well that summer some years back now, when I realized the connection between the Western and the Confederacy mythologies in Hollywood and the fiction of the cowboy. I still recall how angry my own attempts to model myself on the Cowboy Hero made my mother and grandmother. That was unfitting for a girl. When we played cowboys as children I was the cowboy. I made my little brother be the cowgirl. The cowboy had the best horse. They never understood. But then, they perceived my horse love as embarrassingly improper girl behavior too. To this day I don't understand why they thought anyone would - should prefer doll dishes to galloping over the prairie. But then, they never understood that what I really was up to was getting rid of being a girl all together, and becoming a horse.