'Streets raised us. Horses saved us': New images of Compton Cowboys

‘Streets raised us. Horses saved us’: Striking images of the Compton Cowboys who continue the long legacy of black riders, cowhands and showmen – like Nat Love – of the old American Wild West in the heart of a city

  • Griffith D Compton and around 30 families settled what would become known as Compton in 1867
  • Incorporated in 1888, Compton was originally a farming town. It grew more residential but Richland Farms remained open land in the heart of the city and was bought by Mayisha Akbar, a successful real estate broker
  • Akbar founded the Compton Junior Posse in 1988 to teach kids about horses and black cowboy culture
  • In the 1980s and ’90s, Compton was overrun with the crack epidemic, murder, violence and gangs
  • Her nephew, Randy Hook, took over running the farm and wants to rebuild its youth riding program eventually to be replicated across the country. He started the Compton Cowboys with former Junior Posse riders in 2016
  • Walter Thompson-Hernandez, who wrote a book about them, said black cowboys have been in Compton since at least the 1950s. Many African American families migrated to California from the deep South 
  • In the old American Wild West, it is estimated that one in four cowboys was black. Some, like Nat Love, who was freed from slavery after the Civil War, gained recognition for their cattle, horse and riding skills 

The black men mounted on horses would be a standard sight many places, but in Compton, they were a sensation.

It was the first parade for the newly formed Compton Cowboys and the crowd hungered for them, snapping selfies and shouting encouragement – ‘I’m so happy y’all are back’ – as they trotted down the boulevard. The group’s members had taken part in the annual Compton Christmas Parade before as children, but it had been over 15 years since their last official ride, according to a new book.

And like their city, they had changed since then: Found partners and had children, moved and came back, earned degrees, competed in rodeos, gone to prison, lost family members to violence, and left behind gang life and drug dealing. Some of them had grown up during the 1990s when South Central and Compton were overrun with gangs, violence, murder and the crack epidemic.

In 1988, Mayisha Akbar, a successful businesswoman, bought a property, Richland Farms, in the city and formed the Compton Junior Posse as a way to keep kids out of gangs and off the street. It was also to teach them about black cowboy culture. There is a decades-long tradition of black people riding horses on the streets of Compton tied to an even longer heritage of African Americans cowboys.

While history and popular culture representations of the old American Wild West have been whitewashed, there are estimates that one in every four cowboys was black. Men like Nat Love, ‘who was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, freed at the conclusion of the Civil War, and gained prominence throughout the Southwest as a trusted guide and showman,’ journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez wrote in his new book, The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland.

‘This really beautiful history and legacy wasn’t something that I was learning at school,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘People like the Compton Cowboys are trying to insert themselves into the history books.’    

Black men helped settle the American frontier and were a significant part of cowboy culture. For example, Nat Love, ‘who was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, freed at the conclusion of the Civil War, and gained prominence throughout the Southwest as a trusted guide and showman,’ journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez wrote in his new book, The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland. Above, Compton Cowboys members Charles Harris, center, who is well-known on the rodeo circuit, and Randy Hook, right, the group’s leader, at the annual Compton Christmas Parade

While history and popular culture representations of the old American Wild West have been whitewashed, there are estimates that one in every four cowboys were black. ‘This really beautiful history and legacy wasn’t something that I was learning at school,’ Thompson-Hernandez told DailyMail.com. ‘People like the Compton Cowboys are trying to insert themselves into the history books.’ Above, Keiara Wade and her daughter Taylor take a ride at a stable in Gardena, California. Wade, who has been competing in rodeos since she was 13, is the only female member of the Compton Cowboys

In the 1980s, crack gripped the city tightly and Compton was inundated with violence, murder and the rise of gangs. This continued throughout the 1990s. Mayisha Akbar, a successful real estate broker, saw Richland Farms in the middle of Compton, bought the property, and founded the Compton Junior Posse in 1988. Members of the current Compton Cowboys were part of the Junior Posse or had spent time at Akbar’s ranch. Above, Compton Cowboy member Kenneth Atkins on his horse Ebony as they wait for a green light at the intersection of Wilmington Avenue and Alondra Boulevard

Mayisha Akbar started the Compton Junior Posse as a way to keep kids out of gangs and off the street. It was also to teach them about black cowboy culture. She attracted wealthy donors who supported the nonprofit program throughout the decades. After running the ranch and the Compton Junior Posse for years, Akbar decided to retire and her nephew, Randy Hook, has taken over running the ranch. Hook started the Compton Cowboys in 2016 with other former posse members. A key aspect for him is to attract kids and young people to the ranch and horses. Above, Anthony Harris, center, at his granddaughter’s elementary school in Watts, California while kids pet his horse 

People were excited to see the Compton Cowboys riding in the annual Compton Christmas Parade. According to journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez’s new book about the group, it had been their first official ride in over 15 years. There are other cowboys groups in Compton and Thompson-Hernandez wrote that black cowboys have been in Compton since at least the 1950s. Above, the Compton Cowboys wait to ride in the city’s annual Christmas parade

Griffith D Compton and around 30 families settled in the area in 1867 after buying the 4,600 acres for $5, according to the city’s website. They came from another part of state where the Gold Rush had petered out. It became known as Compton and was officially incorporated in 1888. Thompson-Hernandez pointed out in his book that ‘it was meant to be a farming town.’

As the town grew and became more residential, he wrote: ‘The Richland Farms became a ten-acre community in the heart of Compton, blocks away from what would later become the Compton Courthouse and Compton High School and zoned specifically for agricultural use. The farms became a community within a community that allowed families to live a semblance of the lives they once knew.’

Demographically, the city was populated by white families until the mid-1950s, including boasting George H W Bush and his family as residents for a six-month stint in 1949. By 1960, the black population had grown from five percent to 40 percent and after the Watts riots in August 1965, more white residents left, according to the book. 

In the 1980s, crack gripped the city tightly and Compton was inundated with violence, murder and the rise of gangs. Mayisha Akbar, a successful real estate broker, saw Richland Farms in the middle of Compton. Her father grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, according to book The Compton Cowboys, and tales of his upbringing as well as raising her own children there spurred her to buy the land.

She founded the Compton Junior Posse in 1988.  

‘Her vision for the ranch was directly linked to the vision for her community. Getting kids on horses, she believed, dramatically lowered the chances of gang involvement. Her model worked,’ Thompson-Hernandez wrote.

In 1986, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others formed the gangster rap group called N.W.A. The members were from Compton, South Central and Crenshaw. Thompson-Hernandez wrote that Akbar was in competition with a ‘rap group that made recruiting horse riders challenging… If Compton was already stigmatized around the world as a haven for crime and violence, N.W.A further crystallized deep-seated fears of gun-toting young black youth.

‘The children of the neighborhood had to decide between the version of Compton that N.W.A was describing and the Compton she wanted to create. It was a battle that she often lost.’

Anthony Harris was eight-years-old when he was initiated into the Acacia Blocc gang in 1991. He was ‘jumped in’ after surviving minutes of being beaten by its members. It was after Harris dropped out of middle school that he met Akbar at the ranch and ‘was immediately drawn to the horses,’ Thompson-Hernandez wrote.

But he continued being in the gang and started dealing drugs. It was after serving two years in prison that Harris came back to the ranch and later became a member of the Compton Cowboys.  

Griffith D Compton and around 30 families settled in the area in 1867 after buying the 4,600 acres for $5, according to the city’s website. They came from another part of state where the Gold Rush had petered out. It became known as Compton and was officially incorporated in 1888. Journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez pointed out in his new book, The Compton Cowboys, that ‘it was meant to be a farming town.’ Above, Roy-Keenan Abercrombia rides through Compton

As the town grew and became more residential, Thompson-Hernandez wrote: ‘The Richland Farms became a ten-acre community in the heart of Compton, blocks away from what would later become the Compton Courthouse and Compton High School and zoned specifically for agricultural use. The farms became a community within a community that allowed families to live a semblance of the lives they once knew.’ Above, Tre Hosley, a Compton Cowboy who is well-known on the rodeo circuit, breaking a horse

Compton has changed demographically over the years. The city was populated by white families until the mid-1950s, including boasting George H W Bush and his family as residents for a six-month stint in 1949. By 1960, the black population had grown from five percent to 40 percent and after the Watts riots in August 1965, more white residents left, according to the book. Above, cowboy Tre Hosley takes a break in Palos Verdes, California

‘Many of the Mexican families that migrated to the farms settled in contentious blocks and experienced the crime and violence of the crack cocaine era of the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then Compton’s Latino population had increased to almost 70 percent of the entire city,’ Thompson-Hernandez wrote in his new book, The Compton Cowboys. Above, cowboy Anthony Harris with his horse

Above, members of the Compton Cowboys on their horses outside a Louisiana Fried Chicken 

Like any group, there are issues between its members, but the Compton Cowboys remain focused on giving back to the community – and keeping the ranch open after Akbar’s retirement. 

Thompson-Hernandez, then working for The New York Times as a reporter, was home from an assignment abroad when he saw a Guinness ad that featured the cowboys. Looking to stay in Los Angeles, where he grew up, he reached out to Hook on Instagram in February 2018. ‘I thought about my experiences as a child and the feeling I had when I first saw a black person on a horse,’ Thompson-Hernandez told DailyMail.com. 

On March 31, ‘For the Compton Cowboys, Horseback Riding is a Legacy, and Protection,’ was published in The Times. ‘I was surprised that the story did so well,’ he said, and soon he was working on a book. 

Thompson-Hernandez called it an ‘ethnographic project,’ but noted that he is around the same age as the cowboys and that he lived 10 minutes from the ranch, where he spend all day at from 5am until 11pm. He witnessed the ‘unique and special bond’ between the horses and everyone who interacted with them, and the animals’ healing power.

In his book, Thompson-Hernandez wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement, and at several of the recent protests throughout the country, there were black men and women riding on horses. Indeed, on June 8, the Compton Cowboys organized a ‘Peace Ride’ with 100 black riders from Southern California and over a 1,000 people participating in the march, L.A. Taco reported. 

‘The book isn’t just about cowboys and horses, it’s about black people’s lives,’ Thompson-Hernandez told DailyMail.com. The group is ‘transforming our idea of cowboys’ and ‘redefining what it means to be from Compton.’ 

Hook told C Magazine that the group believes in giving back and being a role model for the kids in the community. 

‘As Compton Cowboys, we represent a new guard, a new generation of horse folks, young black folks, of inner-city folks, putting that all into one pot and stirring it up, and going out there and breaking down the barriers and starting a new definition for what it means to be a cowboy, what it means to be black, what it means to be inner city. We want to be that voice in the fight for good.’

The Compton Cowboys formed in 2016 and it is a group dedicated to giving back to its community. Many members were part of the Compton Junior Posse or spent time at the ranch. Like any group, there are disagreements but also love and care. Above, Tre Hosley, a part-time barber, cuts Roy-Keenan Abercrombia hair near the ranch’s riding arena

Randy Hook, above, with his son, Lux. Mayisha Akbar’s nephew, Hook has taken over running the ranch and is the leader of the Compton Cowboys. Akbar drew on the support of wealthy donors to keep the ranch and the nonprofit Compton Junior Posse afloat throughout the decades. Hook is looking for a way to finance the ranch and its programs. He told C Magazine: ‘As Compton Cowboys, we represent a new guard, a new generation of horse folks, young black folks, of inner-city folks, putting that all into one pot and stirring it up, and going out there and breaking down the barriers and starting a new definition for what it means to be a cowboy, what it means to be black, what it means to be inner city. We want to be that voice in the fight for good’ 

Above, Keiara Wade and her daughter Taylor. Wade, who has been riding and competing since she was 13, was living in Texas when she received news that her brother had been murdered. She took time off from riding due to his death and a back injury from a car accident. The only woman in the Compton Cowboys, journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez chronicles her recovery and eventual moved to Houston. ‘Her dream of becoming the first black woman to compete in the national rodeo championships was no small feat given her work schedule and her duties as a mother,’ he wrote 

Above, Kenneth Atkins with his horse Ebony on the corner in Compton outside of a liquor store

Anthony Harris was eight-years-old when he was initiated into the Acacia Blocc gang in 1991. He was ‘jumped in’ after surviving minutes of being beaten by its members. It was after Harris dropped out of middle school that he met Akbar at the ranch and ‘was immediately drawn to the horses,’ Thompson-Hernandez wrote. But he continued being in the gang and started dealing drugs. It was after serving two years in prison that Harris came back to the ranch and later became a member of the Compton Cowboys. Above, Harris washes Dakota

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