Fans of Western fiction may be surprised to learn that their mental image of a cowboy is incomplete.
They’re seeing only three-fourths of the picture.
What’s missing is some 25% of that population: the black cowboy.
Trae Venerable, 24, an Olathe author, wants to fill in what popular culture has left out.
Venerable, 24, has written three children’s books about black cowboys in a series called “Grandpa, I Just Wanna be a Cowboy.” The books feature Bo, a young black boy, and his grandfather, Grandpa LeRoy.
Venerable, a 2013 graduate of Olathe North High School, said he grew up learning about horses and his family’s cattle-ranching history from summers spent with an uncle and cousins on a cattle operation in south Missouri.
He researched and wrote the Grandpa LeRoy books in the school library while he was a student at Central Missouri University in Warrensburg.
“What inspired me to write the books was that I was annoyed that people didn’t know and didn’t pay homage to black cowboys,” he said.
His books include “Grandpa, I Just Wanna be a Cowboy. Notables from the West” and “Grandpa, I Just Wanna be a Cowboy. Rodeo Cowboys.” A third book about women in the West is scheduled for release later this year.
While their role in the Old West may not have been honored, blacks have always been in the story, “but never in the mythology,” said James Leiker, a professor and chairman of the history department at Johnson County Community College.
Historically, “cowboy” refers to those who drove cattle from Texas north after the Civil War, a span from about 1865 to 1885. Blacks were there — working alongside other cowboys on the trail, Leiker said.
“They worked on ranches, threw lasso, did branding and protected herds from rustlers,” Leiker said.
They also owned land, built homesteads and pioneered.
The image of a cowboy as a “white knight on horseback” was a myth created in novels in the early 1900s and later popularized in movies, music and on TV shows.
Black cowboy history was “literally white washed” in the lore that emerged long after cattle drives had ended, Leiker said.
Venerable wants to show readers the complete picture of cowboys in American history.
In Venerable’s books, Grandpa LeRoy tells Bo about notable black cowboys such as Nat Love, who worked the cattle drives; Bill Pickett, a rodeo cowboy; and songwriter and cowhand, Charley Willis, who wrote “Goodbye Old Paint.”
Grandpa LeRoy lives on a farm and Bo helps with chores and the care of the horses.
Venerable traces his own heritage back at least four generations to cattle ranchers and hog farmers and more recently to a 2,000-acre cow-calf operation and a grandfather who raises Tennessee Walking Horses.
Venerable’s definition of cowboy — “someone who tends to horses and cows” — extends beyond cattle drives and includes more contemporary terms such as rancher, herdsman and horseman.
His books are written for third- through sixth-graders. To reach young readers, Venerable accepts invitations from Kansas City area schools to read his books to classes. He estimates that he has talked to more than 10,000 students so far and has 20 schools already scheduled for the 2019-2020 academic year.
“I want to do more than talk to them,” Venerable said. “I want to show them what blacks can do besides sports and music.”
Venerable works as a Honeywell engineer at the Department of Energy’s Kansas City National Security Campus in Kansas City.
At the end of a workday and on weekends, Venerable returns to his cowboy roots as he cares for two of his family’s Tennessee Walking Horses in Spring Hill and works on the family cattle ranch in Wright County, Missouri.