Tall in the sad­dle

A pi­o­neer­ing black rodeo cow­boy en­ters the pages of his­tory


Vaunda Micheaux Nel­son’s new­est book for young read­ers is a story about an in­ci­dent in the life of a black rodeo cow­boy. It’s a true story. The book is “Let ’Er Buck! — Ge­orge Fletcher, The Peo­ple’s Cham­pion.” Nel­son, an award-win­ning Rio Ran­cho au­thor, cred­its her hus­band, Drew, for call­ing her at­ten­tion to an ar­ti­cle about Fletcher in Cow­boys and In­di­ans mag­a­zine.

“I like find­ing sto­ries that are wor­thy of be­ing in his­tory books but haven’t made it there,” Nel­son said. She tries to find a way to share sto­ries of real heroic fig­ures with kids and adults, though the tar­get au­di­ence of “Let ’Er Buck!” is ages 7 to 12.

Ge­orge Fletcher was 10 years old when his fam­ily left Kansas and set­tled in the town of Pendle­ton in eastern Ore­gon. He first com­peted for rodeo prize money at age 16, though he suf­fered dis­crim­i­na­tion. As Nel­son writes, “… some rodeos and exhibitions shut out black cow­boys. When he was al­lowed to com­pete, the judges hardly ever treated him fair.”

The fo­cus of Nel­son’s book is the Sad­dle Bronc Cham­pi­onship, the main com­pe­ti­tion at the Pendle­ton Round-Up of 1911. The prize was a $350 sil­ver-trimmed Ham­ley sad­dle. Fletcher was up against 48-year-old Jack­son Sun­down, a Nez Perce In­dian, and John Spain, a white rancher.

The judges chose Spain the win­ner. Fletcher came in sec­ond. The crowd howled in dis­agree­ment that Spain, not Fletcher, won. They lifted Fletcher on their shoul­ders, hol­ler­ing “Peo­ple’s Cham­pion!” and pa­raded around the rodeo grounds.

The Umatilla County sher­iff, who was also a Round-Up board mem­ber, felt Fletcher was wronged. So he asked peo­ple to give $5 for cut-up pieces of Fletcher’s cow­boy hat. The crowd do­nated more money to Fletcher than the value of the prize sad­dle. “Blacks came west to find land, start a new life just as whites did,” Nel­son said.

“Part of my goal is not only in shar­ing a good story but also show­ing im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ments of AfricanAmer­i­cans. Re­gard­ing Ge­orge Fletcher, he changed the views of a lot of peo­ple about African-Amer­i­cans just by dis­play­ing his tal­ent and de­ter­mi­na­tion. … His story was in­spir­ing.”

What makes Nel­son’s story leap off the pages are the vi­brant color il­lus­tra­tions of Gor­don C. James, es­pe­cially his thrilling full-page images de­pict­ing wild buck­ing broncs.

“I looked at pic­tures of an­gry horses, and I kind of ex­ag­ger­ated them (in the il­lus­tra­tions) to re­ally get the mes­sage home,” said James, a North Carolina res­i­dent who is a clas­si­cal trained oil painter.

Among Nel­son’s other books for young read­ers is “Bad News for Out­laws: The Re­mark­able Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Mar­shal,” which won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2010.

Vaunda Micheaux Nel­son dis­cusses, signs “Let ’Er Buck” at 6 p.m. Thurs­day, Feb. 21, at Book­works. At 1 p.m. Satur­day, Feb. 23, she will be one of about 10 lo­cal au­thors who will give brief pre­sen­ta­tions and sign and sell copies of their books at the Loma Colorado Main Li­brary, 755 Loma Colorado NE, Rio Ran­cho. And Nel­son signs copies of her new book 2-4 p.m. Satur­day, March 2, at Barnes & No­ble, 3701 El­li­son NW, Cot­ton­wood Cor­ners.

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