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Cotton Club Museum event showcases Black cowboys and cowgirls in Florida, then and now

Amid the echo of hoofbeats and the sway of lassos, history galloped to life this weekend as the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center honored the unsung heroes who shaped the frontier of the American West.

“Most of when we think of cowboys, we think of Paul Newman, John Wayne,” said Dr. Barbara McDade Gordon, an event co-chair and board member of the Cotton Club Museum. Most people do not have the image of Black or African American cowboys as default, she said.

Gordon, who is originally from Texas, grew up in cowboy culture and wanted to create an event at the Cotton Club Museum where the community could learn about the history of Black cowboys in Florida.

She spearheaded the free two-day “extravaganza” held on Friday and Saturday. Gordon did this alongside fourth-generation cattleman and cowboy, John Nix.

“We thought that the Black cowboys were underrepresented segment of American history and ranching,” Nix said.

Additionally, because of the rise in interest in Western culture, due to artists like Beyoncé creating country music, this event was seen as a great opportunity to connect with the local Black community, said Nix.

Nix also serves as president of the North Central Florida Black Farmers Association. He runs his own farm in Rochelle, a rural town east of Gainesville, which was established by his grandfather Edward Hall in 1901.

The first day of the event featured a presentation by Nix, accompanied with a walk-through exhibit and a movie shown titled “History of Black Cowboys.”

For his presentation, Nix had asked permission from the Florida Agriculture Museum in Palm Coast to use their panels to accurately showcase the history of Black cowboys in Florida.

“The word cowboy was used in the 1700s, coined in the Carolinas,” said Nix during his presentation. “It meant Black slaves who tended cows.”

“It got to be so popular that everybody wanted to be called a cowboy,” said Gordon when explaining the shift of the definition.

Nix also talked about his own experience as a cowboy and the values that he’s grown up with. Being kind and humble, “that is definitely the cowboy way,” he shared.

We’re connected to the environment, more so than people, said Nix about cowboys. He has a saying: “People die away but the land is here to stay.”

In sharing his story and the history of cowboys, Nix hopes to inspire the younger generation to learn how to take care of land and cattle.

“Our underlying purpose is to get our young people interested in agriculture and not to see it as something that produced slavery for us,” Nix said. “We want them to see the opportunities.”

The second day of the event included various outdoor and entertaining activities such as, horse riding, lasso and roping demonstrations, and line dancing.

These events keep the interest in their underlying message, said Nix. “It’s the sizzle, but the steak is learning to be outside, learning about food, learning about keeping our agricultural land.”

Porshe Chiles, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Florida was at the event tabling as a member of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) at UF.

In her time as a doctoral student studying agriculture education and communication, Chiles has found that there is a lack of research on Black farming experiences that are out there, she said.

Things like this event highlight the efforts of Black farmers and Black agriculturalists within the community and remind the community what Black agriculture can look like, not only in Florida but in the nation, she said.

Genesis Leonard, 24, is a first-year museum studies graduate student at UF and an intern at the Cotton Club Museum.

The event was important because it taught the community, specifically youth, the relationship between Black cowboys and agriculture, Leonard said. “They are learning the methods on why it’s so important to tend to your land, your space and cultivate it.”

Gainesville native Jacquelyn Collins attended on Saturday to enjoy the activities and learn more about Black culture.

“I’m here today because our history has long been not told, not heard, we’ve been a silent race of people,” Collins said. “It’s just wonderful to explore new thoughts, new avenues of Black people and to learn that we were part of the cowboy generation.”

“Today’s event is just a wonderful time for families and friends to come out in the community and be a part of it,” said Collins. She also emphasized that there were attendees from all different cultures, that everyone was welcomed and benefitted from the knowledge about Florida’s Black history.

“This event falls well within the mission of the Cotton Club Museum, which is to bring African American history to life in its most factual manner,” said CEO and founder of the museum, Vivian Filer.

Filer, 85, is a prominent Gainesville resident who has led the Cotton Club Museum from its beginnings and aims to preserve Black history year-round through the museum’s events and programs.

Filer shared that after the success and turn out of the event, the Cotton Club Museum aims to have this become a reoccurring event.

Jessica is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing