By JOEY BUNCH
DENVER -- At the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, retired rodeo champ Abe Morris needs only a nod of his black cowboy hat and his broad smile to be welcomed into the chute area where professional bull riders gather before their rides.
"If I put on this cowboy hat and go down to the grocery store in my neighborhood, people would look at me like I'm joking," said the rodeo announcer, author and one of the rare African-American professional rodeo cowboys of his era -- 1977 to 1994.
Morris said he thought back then that by now, African-Americans would fill rodeo lineups as black fans were exposed to the sport the way he, his cousins and his friends had been while growing up in New Jersey.
They scrambled to ride bulls and broncs in the weekly rodeo near their homes, he said, the same way many in their generation waited turns to shoot hoops on inner-city playgrounds.
But of the 47 riders during the Jan. 12 stock-show rodeo, only Jamon Turner of Denver was black.
When the West was won, African-Americans were on the front lines, scholars say. One of every three cowhands was African-American, according to Denver's Black American West Museum.
Whole Western towns were populated by African-Americans.
The ghost town of Dearfield was famous not just as an African-American community but also as the place where dryland farming was introduced to the state. The practice has produced millionaires across the Plains ever since.
Today, there is a disconnect between blacks and their rural past, said Reiland Rabaka, an associate professor of Africana studies at the University of Colorado and a research fellow for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in America.
Rabaka is writing a chapter called "Beyond the Black Cowboy" for an educational volume on Colorado's ethnic cultures to be published this year.
Since the days of the black cowboys, African-Americans have forged enduring legacies in politics and public service, music and theater, education, science and medicine, he said.
"Most people couldn't tell you much of anything about African-American history before the civil-rights movement," Rabaka said.
Five years ago, the National Western made an effort to change that.
Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, former music producer Lu Vason brings the top black cowboys in the world to Denver for the Martin Luther King Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo of Champions.
Nearly 20,000 metro-area schoolkids attend the stock show on school tours each year.
Stock-show board member Khadija Haynes, co-founder of the Denver Urban Garden program, arranges many of those tours for city children.
"Not a lot of kids in the city really know what their history is," Haynes said. "African-Americans weren't just black cowboys; they were farmers, and they built towns. It's important that kids know the history of this state, the history of this city."
Jamey Ford, 29, first came to the stock show on a school tour when he was 12, he said this week as he herded his two toddlers through the stables.
"You should let your kids experience everything and (let them) choose their own way," he said.
Ford, who is black, grew up in east Aurora and dreams of someday "retiring with a bunch of cows in the country."
That's not typical, Rabaka said.
Unfortunately, black culture trends away from its rural roots because of its association with slavery, he said. Quoting civil-rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, Rabaka said, "There's no one way to be an African-American."
"The black cowboy is a rich part of who African-Americans are," Rabaka said. "We should embrace that, and we should be proud of that."
Cowboy Abe Morris agrees. He's proud of his race, proud of his background in rodeo and proud that his 10-year-old son, Justin, wears one of his rodeo championship buckles.
"He's been on a bull," Morris said, grinning. "If he wants to ride, that'll be his decision."