In June, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum shared on social media a 1998 saddle won by Tex Williams—the first Black cowboy to compete at the Texas State High School Finals in 1967. Upon further inspection, the saddle reads, “Champion Team Roper.”
“I never thought I’d hear anything on it again,” Williams mused about the saddle he’d donated years ago. “Cass Ringlestein was giving a roping here in San Antonio [and] they had 600 and some teams …. We run our first steer together and we were the fastest time in that round [and] they gave us saddles for the fastest time.”
Williams, 71, grew up on the ranch where his dad worked in El Campo, Texas, but has lived in San Antonio since 1977, and actually has more of a roughie background than a roping background.
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“That’s all I knew, was horses and cattle. When we was out of school, we rode horses all summer. On the weekend, we worked cattle and fixed fence and my dad was a rodeo cowboy, too. He rode saddle broncs, roped calves and dogged steers …. He was really good.”
Williams was also really good.
“In ’67, I won the Texas High School Bareback Riding Championship and, then, I went to the High School National Finals in Elko, Nevada. I was the All-Around runner-up there. Should have won it ….”
In Texas at the time, the high school association only allowed seniors to compete in the bull riding, but when Williams—who’d been competing with the rest of the bull riders in the Black rodeos—saw he could elect bull riding on the entry form, he was eager to ride bulls at the Finals, because it and bareback riding were his best events.
“I think I won the second or third in the first round. Somebody found out we didn’t have it in our state show, so they kicked me out. Which, I understood, but I wish they would have told me before.”
To put the era in context, “The Jackie Robinson of Rodeo,” Hall of Fame bull rider Myrtis Dightman, would be the first Black cowboy to win the World that same year. (Robinson broke professional baseball’s color barrier 20 years earlier.) The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and 100-year-old Jim Crow laws were being removed from the books, but would still be enforced for years to come in many parts of the country. News of protests and rioting filled the airwaves.
Still, Williams just wanted to ride.
“In ’68, I won the bareback riding and the bull riding in our state show,” he recalled. “Then, I went to the High School National Finals in Topeka, Kansas, and I got in the saddle bronc riding and I placed … but one of the other states found out we didn’t have saddle bronc riding in our state show so they kicked me out of the saddle bronc riding.
“But, I was in the bull riding and the bareback riding and I was the All-Around runner up that year. Then, I went to the College Finals in ’69. I think I was 20th and I ended up 10th in the bareback and maybe 15th in the bull riding.”
Williams didn’t appreciate getting kicked out of two Finals events in two years, but mostly he was happy to let his talent do the talking.
“Every one of those high school rodeos that I went to, other than when I was bucked off, I either won first or second. I was kicked out of two rodeos that I know of. One of them was in Wharton—my county seat. They wouldn’t let me rodeo there because I was Black. But I was going to the High School National Finals, so it didn’t really make much difference.”
The next time Williams faced such blatant racism, he was shipping off to Vietnam. Williams’ drill sergeant bud-dies were competing in Leesville, Louisiana, near where they were stationed at Fort Polk. Williams had his mom ship his riggin’ bag to him and entered up. When Williams asked the office which horse Tex drew, they answered Horse 6.
“I started putting my riggin’ on that sixth horse and a guy walked up to me and said, ‘What are you about to do?’ By then, I had my leggin’s on and spurs and everything and I said, ‘Well, I’m getting this horse ready so I can ride him.’
“He said, ‘You can’t ride here.’”
Williams did his best to get his ride, but without success.
“They said, ‘We’ve had trouble with Blacks and we don’t want no more trouble.’ I said, ‘Sir, I’m on my way to Viet-nam. I might get killed over there. All I want to do here is ride a bucking horse.’ Well, they wouldn’t let me ride, so.”
When Williams returned from the war, he worked on a rice farm, which led to an opportunity to become a professional trucker—an occupation he maintains even in his retirement.
“I don’t like nothing raggedy,” Williams said. “I always wanted a nice truck, a nice horse and a nice trailer, and the only way I could find to get that is to work for it.”
Rodeoing also sustained Williams, who remained competitive and didn’t ride his last bucking horse until the mid-’90s. Then, when he was 62 years old, he finally parted ways with bulldogging.
“My knees, they just got bad. I just kept folding up. So, at 62, I dogged my last steer in Johnson City in one of the Lester Meier rodeos. I think I won 2nd or 3rd or something like that. I told my buddy, I said, ‘I’m not jumping off of anything anymore.’ And I never did. I never did jump off or run another steer again.”
Williams is the first to admit that team roping doesn’t come quite right to him the way his other rodeo endeavors have, but he’s committed to it nonetheless.
“It don’t fit just right, but I love it. I’m not gonna quit until I can’t get up on an-other horse.”
Or get back to Vegas, where he competed in 2017, which, so far, is one of his favorite team roping memories.
“I won the #8 in Robstown and I qualified to go to Vegas. I didn’t do anything in the $300,000 roping because I think I missed on the second or third steer. But there was a qualifier for the next year, that Sunday, and I got in it, and me and a partner of mine, we ended up winning fourth. I mean, it wasn’t the big money, but it was right at $5,000 a piece. So, to me, that was big. That was my highlight, to be out there with the big boys, in the big place and win that kind of money. And I’m still trying to make it back. I just gotta practice a little bit more, I guess.”
Williams, who had to endure booing crowds in his early rodeo days, also appreciates that team roping, above all the others, has been the most inclusive.
“At team ropings, I think, this is just me,” Williams clarified, “I think I’m more like all of my peers, everybody around there. I’ve never had a cross word or anything with anyone.”
At 71, as the first Black cowboy to earn a champion title at the High School Finals in Texas, followed by countless more buckles throughout his long career, Williams long ago learned how to move through the world without stirring up trouble. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s the way that it is.
“I know it was there,” Williams said in reference to the racism that existed in rodeo. “I just found ways to get around it. And that shouldn’t be right. I should be able to get out of my truck and go any-where the next man goes. But I love riding horses and bulls, so that was it …. I just tell it the way it is and that’s the way it was for me.”
To see Tex Williams’ rodeo memorabilia and hear more stories (there are many!), visit The Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenburg, Texas. blackcowboymuseum.org.