To reach the Federation of Black Cowboys headquarters at Cedar Lane Stables, you take the A train for about an hour out of Manhattan to the Grant Avenue station in Howard Beach, walk a mile past park-and-ride lots and construction sites and a truck selling Polish sausage, then look for the wooden rail fencing around a long and narrow stretch of trees and trailers alongside Linden Boulevard. For two decades, until the city closed the stables this year, these 26 acres of pasture, trees, and western-themed corrals provided a place for city kids to learn to ride a horse or see a rodeo.
A group of local horseback riders, middle-aged or in their retirement years, started the Federation of Black Cowboys in 1994. The plan was to teach "ethnic and inner-city kids the likes of what the word 'cowboy' is about," the group's president, Ed "Marshall" Dixon, said in 2008. Horseback riders love to hang around the stables with their friends, so Cedar Lane served as clubhouse for these men between performances of trick riding for visiting kids and appearances in city parades and at the Fresh Air Fund summer camps for poor children.
If you've taken a cab down South Conduit on the way to JFK, you might've seen the long white fence along this long wooded gulch. You might even spot the big sheriff's star posted to a fence memorializing "Deadwood Dick," a.k.a. Nat Love, the former slave who became a major figure in the African American West.
The Cowboys' phone is disconnected now, and their website seems abandoned. The only way to find out if the Federation still operates is to head out there, horse or no horse. There's still snow on the ground, a week after a winter storm dusted New York City, and the truck traffic roars by on Belt Parkway. Beyond the Lindenwood Diner, you see the wooden ranch fencing, its white paint peeling, and then there's a rusted old wagon, plastic grocery bags caught in bare tree branches, and a couple of graffiti-tagged construction trailers and shipping containers converted to shelter for cowboys and their horses.
I walk around in the ridiculous cold, looking for a cowboy, looking for anyone at all. Somebody has set up a portable Christmas tree lot just outside the Federation's gates, but that person is nowhere to be found by the pickup truck and trailer and stack of bound trees.
There's a big red sign for Debbie's Western Boutique. I cannot find Debbie or the boutique. A statue of a greyhound leans against a telephone pole near the riding ring. Ducks paddle by in the ditchwater. Rules and regulations are listed on another sign, propped against a tree. No sign of horses or alfalfa bales to feed them, and there's no answer at the only trailer that looks like it still houses people.
After six horses died in as many months at the run-down stables, the city pulled Cedar Lane's operating permit in March. The horses had to be moved elsewhere, and the Federation of Black Cowboys were in danger of losing their contract to operate the stables. But the ASPCA found no evidence of animal cruelty, and many of the horses there belonged to private boarders and not the Federation. Still, boarders and members of the Black Cowboys blamed each other for the troubles.
I finally see movement on the property: A mini-van backs out of the slush and I run down the mud and gravel path, waving. There's an older black man behind the wheel. Whether he's a cowboy or not remains undetermined. But he opens the driver's door to talk to me for a moment.
"We're not open right now," he says. "We're doing renovations."
"When will you be open again?"
"Maybe in March," he says after a long pause. "Give a call then."
The legacy of black cowboys in America is mostly forgotten, and mostly because Hollywood Westerns rewrote history as dubious morality tales of good white men fighting bad white men and treacherous Indians. More recent Westerns have allowed a broader view, acknowledging that cowboys were originally Spanish and Mexican, that many American cowboys were black, and that the treacherous Indians were in fact the original inhabitants of North America who were fighting back against occupation, infection, rip-offs, and slaughter.
When the New York Times praised the Federation's work back in 1995, it started with a quote from a 14-year-old boy from Bedford-Stuyvesant, back when Bedford-Stuy had meaner streets. "I didn't know black people could do this," he said after watching the Federation's trick riders.
Many of the members had done "this" since they were old enough to walk, because they were raised in the rural South of the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia. Mostly born during and just after World War II, they would've been young men when Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles finally put a black man in the role of Old West sheriff. (Richard Pryor was one of that movie's writers.) They would have seen the eventual acknowledgement of the Buffalo Soldiers, the black horsemen who not only fought for the Union in the Civil War but served as the nation's first national park rangers, securing American treasures such as Yosemite from outlaw loggers, ranchers and miners.
One of the delights of California's Latino population nearing 40% is the rebirth of cowboy culture. In the agricultural towns along the coast and within the Central Valley, the men walk dusty downtowns in pointy boots, big straw hats and pressed Lee jeans. Old stables and riding rings and rodeo grounds have come back to life, as men and women from rural Mexico bring real rodeo back to the American Southwest.
New blood might keep the Federation of Black Cowboys going out here in Queens, too. But at the end of 2013—with its founding members headed into their late 70s, the horses gone and their headquarters falling apart—the legacy of America's black cowboys is in trouble.