Kansas Black Cowboys and Black Farmers

Kansas Black Cowboys and Black Farmers

Doug Barrett, 2023 Finalist

“Kansas Black Cowboys and Black Farmers” is a project about the long history of Blacks and their families who have worked in America’s soil to feed their families and the nation ever since gaining freedom – and who have fought to maintain a way of life in the face of discrimination that continues to the present day.

Chris prepares his saddle to ride his horse on the half acre where he and Randy keep their horses. They have both owned horses all their lives, and together they own 3.5 acres. Kansas. February 8, 2022.

Cowboy Griffin Walker is a “roper” – someone who uses a lasso to catch an animal. He takes a moment to think about his next steps for his daily chores. Kansas. August 13, 2022

Griffin feeds his cows just outside the backdoor of his home. Kansas. August 14, 2022.

Griffin grabs some feed in a bucket in his family’s barn as he goes to load it in his bale truck for feeding. Kansas. August 14, 2022.

Carlos Walker, Griffin’s father, takes feed to his calves. Kansas. October 8, 2022.

One of the first pieces of land Griffin purchased on his own, through his savings and the sale of his first calf crop. Kansas. August 14, 2022.

Carlos and Griffin spray their cattle for flies. Kansas. October 8, 2022.

Griffin counts and recounts his herd, making sure none are missing. Counting cows is something everything cowboy and farmer does. Depending on the market, cows range in value from $600 to a few thousand dollars. Kansas. August 14, 2022.

Griffin takes in the moment as he overlooks his investment. Kansas. August 14, 2022.

Farmer Randy Rhoten Williams prepares and checks the empty barrel of his short 12-gauge shotgun. He must defend himself and his horses, as trespassers try to take what is his. Randy’s personal history is both Black and Native American. Kansas. November 28, 2022.

Passing vehicles slow to see what Randy and Chris are building on their on their land. Like other black cowboys and farmers, they have had to cope with white trespassers trying to steal their land and their horses. Kansas. November 13, 2022.

Randy and Chris take turns keeping guard, watching out for white trespassers who cruise their property, with an eye on their horses, which are known to be genetically strong. Kansas. November 28, 2022.

Randy and Chris often share their horses with inner city Black youth, and give them rides on the animals. They want to share their farming and ranching experiences with kids who might not otherwise know what it means to be a cowboy. Kansas. August 6, 2022.

Chris and a few of his horses in a pasture which another neighbor lets him and Randy use to graze their livestock. Kansas. August 6, 2022.

A Black boy marvels at Black cowboys. Chris and Randy provide horse rides in a downtown park for inner city youth during Topeka community night events. Kansas. August 6, 2022.

Black girl magic as she feeds a horse for the first time. Kansas. August 6, 2022.

Chris leads his horses down the historic Santa Fe Trail. Kansas. August 6, 2022.

Deon Pope starts his morning chores, as his Cane Corso watchdog roams the property, protecting the family and horses. Kansas. October 20, 2022.

Cowboy Curtis Wallace gets hay ready to feed his horses. He is a descendant of slaves from Nicodemus, Kansas, and lives in Lyons, about 250 miles away. Kansas. October 20, 2022.

When these black cowboys walked into a local diner for breakfast, the owner pulled back his shirt to reveal his open carry weapon. He said, “It’s a lot of y’all coming in – anymore coming?” As they ate breakfast, the owner came out from behind the counter to sit a table and keep watch. Kansas. October 20, 2022.

Photographer's Statement: 

Blacks have always worked the soil of America, first as enslaved peoples, and later as freed men and women, working to feed their families as Black farmers in the south – and further west, working as Black farmers and Black cowboys in states like Kansas.

In 1920, the USDA recorded 925,708 Black farm operators – 14 percent of all U.S. farmers. But that number dropped to 5.8 percent by 1964 and the following year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report documenting the discrimination that led to the decline of Black farmers and cowboys, including discrimination when providing loans and conservation payments. In following years, the pattern of discrimination continued, leading to a further decline in the number of Black farmers – to 2 percent of all U.S. farmers. By 1997, it had fallen to 0.9 percent.

Since the early 2000s, there has been more scrutiny of these patterns of discrimination and some progress, including legislation proposed by Senators Raphael Warnock, Cory Bush and Kirsten Gillibrand. And the numbers of Black farmers has risen slightly – to 1.4 percent of the 3.4 million farmers in the U.S.

This project examines the ongoing fight against discrimination by Black farmers and cowboys in Kansas, where I live. Many of them have acquired land through generations of their families and they are fighting to protect their way of life even as they fight against adverse land and banking laws. Despite the many challenges they face, these farmers and cowboys say it’s all worth it. My photos aim to capture that determination, joy and hard work.

“Kansas Black Cowboys and Black Farmers” is informed by my own personal experience. After serving in the military, I purchased my first set of six cow calf pairs in 2013 and began a ranching operation. For me, however, the challenges of being a Black rancher became too great. I left ranching and am continuing to live this story with a camera in hand.

NOTE: Specific locations have been omitted in the photo captions for this project, to protect the safety of the farmers and ranchers in the images.

Doug Barrett
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Doug Barrett is owner of 400 North Creative. He is an African American photographer & cinematographer, internationally recognized, currently based in Kansas. Doug has work in the permanent collection at the Ulrich Museum, and the Mariana Kistler Beach Museum of Art. Doug’s editorial clients include New York Times, TIME Magazine, National Geographic, Politico, Bloomberg News, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, AARP, The Chronicle, and has been featured on the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square NYC. Doug has also been featured on VICE, Foxnews, and BBC World News for his work. Doug completed his undergraduate degree at St Augustine’s University and completed graduate school at Southwestern College with an M.S in Security Administration.