CHICAGO — Since long before Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road,” there’s been a real group of black cowboys here in Chicago who steal away to saddle up every chance they get.
If you grew up watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, what you likely didn’t see at the time was any black cowboys. Just 30 miles down the road from Chicago, there are some wranglers hell-bent on setting the script straight.
“A horse doesn’t care what color you are. Doesn’t care how much money you got,” said cowboy Ron Vasser. “A horse only cares what’s in your heart.”
Historians estimate by the late 1800s, one in four cowboys in the American west were black. Many were former slaves turned cattle herders, and they may have even been the first to earn the moniker.
“They were the boys to get the cows. They were the cowboys,” Vasser said.
Either way, that bit of history never made its way into the mainstream narrative, and black cowboys became the forgotten men of the Wild West.
Still, Aaron Baxter can’t remember a day he didn’t want to be a cowboy. By the time he was four years old, he could identify 14 breeds of horses.
“It was just something that caught me at an early age,” Baxter said.
Living on Chicago’s South Side, Aaron didn’t know his family’s history of black wranglers from the south, but his mom did.
“This is like the Twilight Zone area, there’s something freaky going on,” Sharon Baxter said. “This guy would go outside with cowboy boots, blue jeans, chaps, a Bulls jersey and a Nike basketball.”
She watched as her inner city, basketball-playing kid became obsessed with a piece of the past.
“It’s really interesting to find out that’s what my family comes from, and that we have history in that because it almost makes sense,” Aaron said.
He may have been an oddity in Chicago, but that was only until he met Ron Vasser.
“He had such a tremendous interest in being a cowboy, he was for real,” Vasser said.
The open fields and fresh air of the ranch are a stark contrast to Aaron’s South Shore neighborhood. There, he learned how to bathe a horse and work it out.
“Now we know we can do this because we see people who look like us who are doing this,” Vasser said. “All cowboys aren’t from Texas and all cowboys aren’t white.”
Today, Aaron is also a bull rider.
“When I tell people that in the neighborhood… first thing they think is Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, United Center,” he said. “They are just really overwhelmed by the fact that it’s just something that a black person would do coming from the city.”
Most at Timber Ranch never thought they’d be hanging at a stable. They’re office managers, TV directors, coaches and other city natives who found a piece of themselves out somewhere in the open fields.
“It’s not just a black thing. It’s a cowboy thing,” Vasser said.
“It’s something that feeds your soul; makes you feel really good,” Aaron said.