Florida’s rich history of Black cowboys, cowgirls

by Carol Mosley

I’m still angry at my formal education when I learn the untold stories of American history. At 72 years old, I’m only now learning about the prevalence and importance of Black cowboys and cowgirls in the history of the American west and of my own state of Florida.

Though not known for being a major cattle state, Florida had, and still has, its own Black cowboys who tend to everything on the ranch from herding cows to training horses. In 2022, Florida produced 3 percent of the nation’s beef cows. 

The history of Black cowboys in Florida is intertwined with the Spanish and Seminoles from before the nation was even formed. Managing cattle and taming horses was a common task, though more challenging in Florida’s pinelands than on the open frontier.

After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved people headed to westward expansion of the U.S. to escape southern racism and seek opportunity. The frontier diversity of ranchers and cowhands included Blacks, Indians, Mexican vaqueros, and women. 

The term “cowboy” was a derogatory rendition of “cowhand” that, over time, came to be the macho image that the term conjures today.

Fortunately, this untold story of American and Florida history is gaining much deserved attention from historians and archivists, who are bringing incredible photos and music to public exhibits. The Florida Agricultural Museum created a mobile exhibit of panels called “Black Cowboys of Florida: Past and Present.” The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center is bringing this story to Gainesville on April 12 and 13.

John “Ronnie” Nix, President of Black Farmers Association of North Central Florida, will lead the discussion of historical photo panels and movie on Friday night. John is a fourth generation cattleman and horseman, who manages his own 100 acre Nix farm. 

Nix gained his cowboy skills as a young man working with his grandfather and uncles preparing the “woods cattle” for market sale. According to Nix, “Many of the cattle were wild and required great cowboy skills to be pinned and worked.” The Nix farm doubles as an educational resource for youngsters and as an agrotourism site.

Join us at the Cotton Club Museum on Friday, April 12, from 6-9pm for the movie and discussion with popcorn and again on Saturday from 11am to 5pm, which will be a day of family fun and educational ranching-related demonstrations. The event is free to the public at 837 SE 7th Ave. See www.cottonclubmuseum.com for more information.

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