OAKLAND -- Oakland Black Cowboy Association President Wilbert McAlister is buffing his boots, shining his saddle and hanging his favorite hat on the ready-hook as he prepares to spin his spurs in the 38th annual Parade and Heritage Festival Saturday.
An Oakland tradition since 1975, the parade begins at 10 a.m. at DeFremery Park in West Oakland, then winds itself like a lariat loop through city streets before arriving back where it began.
"It's about a mile and a half," says McAlister, a 71-year-old Oakland resident. "Along the route, folks come out of their houses and sit on the porches and lawns to watch the bands, floats and horses go by."
"You gotta come on down," hecontinues. "We have food and a stage. Whoever's in the parade gets on up there with the emcee -- that's me -- and gets introduced."
Afterward, there are horse rides, music performances, food vendors and dances.
"I'm not Creole, I'm not French, I'm a full-blooded American, but I love the zydeco. It's a two-person dance, like a waltz, so you need to move together," McAlister says.
After learning the wobble-wobble and the electric slide -- "We call it the cowboy shuffle, but it's the same thing," McAlister says -- there's time for education.
The nonprofit organization is devoted to spreading the word about contributions from people of color to the settlement of the West. According to Scholastic.com and historians,
"I'm a black man, and I never knew that the first cowboy was a black man. I knew about field slaves, but then I learned that there were actual boys who slept with the cows, fed the cows, took care of the cows," McAlister says, before explaining why the OBCA's visits to schools and churches are vital.
"There's a lot of history left out of books and schools," he says. "And I used to love going to Western movies when I was a kid, but I never saw a black cowboy."
McAlister says he feels a special responsibility to teach young kids about the major role that black cowboys played as workers, ranchers, trail builders and respecters of women.
"We have a lot of lost black children out here," he laments. "That's why we don't carry guns. We have violence here and we want the image of respect for mankind to show. We raise our children to honor the history."
With 30 members in OBCA, a number that has dwindled from a high of 150 in 2002, the obvious question is, "What keeps you hanging on?"
"Oakland, a horse, and pride," McAlister answers. "I grew up in the flatlands of Madera, where I just did the field work and went to school. When I came here to make my living in real estate, I chose it to be my home. I see bad stuff going down around me, but I'm not a part of it. Sure, it affects me, because I'm living here, but this is where my kids were born."
Claiming birthplace as a cornerstone, he says a horse he acquired from a cousin turned this city-living landlord into a well-decked horseman.
"I have the boots, the hat, the whole gear. I'm Westerned up!" he says, adding, "I just need tips on my boots and a leather belt to make it complete."
A sense of pride comes through as he shares stories of his favorite black cowboy heroes.
There's Charlie Sampson, a "little bitty man" who broke Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association barriers and made history as a world champion bull rider in 1982. And Bill Pickett, who once rode his horse up into the stands to save a rodeo crowd from a runaway bull and famously wrestled bulls to the ground before biting them on the nose (an especially tender area of the otherwise formidable animal) to force them into submission.
Finally, there's his grandson, who upholds the family tradition by remaining "crazy about horses," and his daughter, who serves as OBCA secretary and represents black cowgirls.