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The black cowboys lasso a lost legacy

Back on his farm in Whitney, S.C., in the early 1900s, Gloster Miller taught his young son Ben a thing or two about cowboy courtesy: Always help a lady on with her wrap. Always pull a man from the path of a spooked horse, and always be certain to meet the world with your head held high.

“I learned if you respect everybody, everybody respects you. My Pappy taught me that,” said Ben Miller, 89, a member of the Federation of Black Cowboys, who is better known to generations of wranglers as “Uncle Ben.”

Miller is one of the few original rodeo cowboys remaining in the city, and last weekend he could be found at Cedar Lane Stable in Howard Beach. Selling tickets at the gate for the Federation’s second annual rodeo, Miller double-counted his dollars to be sure he had not been swindled.

“When it comes down to it, you’ve got slickers everywhere,” said Miller from beneath a broad white cowboy hat, its black strap clasped tightly beneath his slack chin and fastened with a single wooden bead. “But,” he advised, “through prayer and reading the Bible you can tell a slicker when he comes up to you.”

Five thousand people attended the three-day rodeo, according to Federation estimates. Donning cowboy hats, suede fringe and hard leather boots, crowds gathered for some rare sights for them: calf roping, barrel racing and bronco riding. Judges standing in an announcer’s box above the arena called out the cowboys’ timing as a twanging two-step played over loud speakers. It was a little piece of Texas nestled into New York City.

The cowboy life has taken its toll on Miller. He walks with a limp from a stiff right leg and a stoop from a saddle-worn back. “All these things catch up with you when you get old,” he said. “The cold sets in. We call it rheumatism down South. You call it arthritis in the North.”

Miller began his rodeo career in 1922 at the age of 10 as a little wrangler with Tom Howid’s Wild West show in Harris County, Texas. He went on to join the Miller Brothers rodeo in Marlin, Okla., where he bunked with 40 other cowboys, earning $5 a week for his bare-back riding and roping. The caravan traveled throughout the country, stopping in towns for three or four days at a time before moving on to the next venue.

In 1940 Miller joined the World Championship Rodeo in Dublin, Texas. In 1959, after nearly 40 years of breaking horses and strapping steer, he called it quits. He settled in New York City with his third wife, Lucille, to raise their three children.

Miller’s easy smile reveals he is short of a few teeth. His eyes are fixed in a perpetually distant gaze. Dark flesh-pillows surround his lashes as if he had spent too many an afternoon squinting for a stray mare into the glare of a sunset. But the man is quick to spot a lively bull when he sees one.

Leaning over the gate of the corral last Saturday, he spied a bull in the muddied arena contorting its back and kicking its rear legs. Fastened around the bull’s belly, a rope with a brass bell hung from its underside. The bell shook. The mud flew and the animal spasmed itself into the air.

“Ooh ooh, look at that,” Miller said, clutching the fence, as if readying himself to join the taming. “Now that’s what I call a bucking bull.”

Few people today have heard of black cowboys. Miller said that when it came time for photographs to be taken, the black cowboys were generally shooed aside. “The people were never in pictures. Heas Uncle Tom — ‘Yes Boss.’ They didn’t know. [The history] was really non-existent until recently,” he said.

The Howard Beach-based Federation of Black Cowboys with its 40 members, was founded eight years ago to teach a generation of urban children just that history, said Edward Dixon, president of the Federation.

Following the Civil War and the emancipation of the enslaved, many men and women found themselves free but without a job. At that time there were few options for the men who had lived an agrarian life in the fields. Some found work rounding up cattle. Others joined the Army and became the all-black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

“Some of them had nappy hair like the buffalo and dark skin like the buffalo,” said Miller. “The Indians gave them that name.”

Miller’s own father Gloster rode with Buffalo Bill after the Civil War. He then joined the Army and rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in San Juan Hill, Cuba. It is a history the Federation wants city kids to hear.

Willie Dunne, 63, originally of Clinton, La., but now living in Manhattan, said today’s kids simply are not aware of their families’ lives in the South and the West. Farming and cattle are completely foreign to a child growing up in Queens, Dunne said.

“They don’t even know where the beef comes from — what they’re eating on the table. They just go to the store and don’t understand how it got there,” he said.

But the Federation plans to change that. Its members believe that through meeting people like Miller and Dunne and caring for a horse, these children can learn love, respect, responsibility, and manners — traits often lost in modern living, Dixon said.

Miller was invited into the Federation as an honorary member in 1995, and the group has since become an extended family of sorts. Reflecting on his alliance with fellow cowboys, Miller said simply, “They learned me something. And I learned them something.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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