In the middle of a small east Texas town is a statue of a bull rider from the 1960s. Not just any bull rider; it’s the bust of one of the most important, trailblazing riders in the history of the sport, Myrtis Dightman. He may not be a household name, but his story may be one of the most under-told and fascinating of the sport.
At this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Pipp Gillette shared a story and song he dedicated to the memory of Myrtis. His story strikes at the core of a difficult subject our country is dealing with today: its racial reckoning. Dightman was hands down the greatest bull rider of his time. However, there was one problem: Myrtis was Black and a good deal of the riding he did was in the racially segregated Jim Crow South.
“He started out as a rodeo clown, a bullfighter, actually. And he used to bullfight barefoot and he could outrun the bulls,” recounted Gillette. “Glenn Ohrlin, the great Cowboy singer, told me that he was the fastest human being he’d ever seen. But Myrtis, he just did amazing things.”
For one, Dightman would ride bulls that had never been ridden – then fly to another rodeo and ride another one that had never been ridden. He consistently won competitions all over the United States, and his peers considered him the best bull rider of his time.
“He went to the final eight times. And he said one time he used to travel with ‘Freckles Brown’ another rodeo legend. And they were coming back from Oklahoma City, which is where the finals were held in those days. And he said to Freckles, ‘Man what am I going to have to do to win this thing?’ And Freckles said, ‘Do you want me to tell you the truth?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Freckles said, ‘Well, just keep riding like you’re riding – and turn white.’ He faced a lot of problems in those days.”
Pipp also explained that Myrtis would often be relegated to ride in “the slack” at rodeos, a phrase used by rodeos of his day to mean the part of the competition many people considered boring. Officials would relegate some of the team roping competitions, and other parts of the competition that weren’t as engaging to this part of the festivities. Having a bull rider ride in “the slack” was completely unheard of and was an intentional slight at Myrtis based on his race.
In one story, reported by Texas Monthly, Dightman was turned away from competing in a rodeo, even as his name was being called, because “no colored allowed.” He ended up placing second.
Eventually, the racism Dightman experienced was brought to the attention of the Rodeo Cowboys Association and they put an end to this practice. While he qualified for the National Finals Rodeo eight times, he never won. His best season ended in a third place finish in 1967. While never an official champion, Dightman was eventually inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Pipp and a number of his contemporaries from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering decided in 2006 to put together a fundraiser concert, and dedicate a statue to recognize this icon. Pipp and his brother Guy, along with Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, and Michael Martin Murphy raised money to build the statue and dedicate it to Myrtis in Crockett, Texas – where it still stands today.
What Dightman’s story helps illustrate locally is how the Gathering is more than just a place for poets and musicians to share their art. It’s a place where creators from all over the West come together and share stories about the diverse history of Western culture. The story of the West is complex, multicultural, and stands in stark contrast to the myopic portrayal from Hollywood. Myrtis Dightman may not be a household name, but like Jackie Robinson, maybe he should be.