By Bonnie DeShong
In my last column “The Mystique of the Black Cowboy” I mentioned the story of Cathay Williams. I said that she disguised herself as a man and joined the Union Army in the Civil War. In reality, she did disguise herself as a man but it was the Buffalo Soldiers she joined, not the Union Army. Her story is amazing. I would like to thank the person who called to make sure the correct history was given.
I mentioned before that the first time I ever saw a Black Cowboy was when I went to the Amphitheater and saw the “Thryl Latting Rodeo Spectacular. I was amazed at seeing Black men and women riding horses and bulls, wrestling and roping calves, and barrel raising.
Recently, I spoke with several Chicagoland Black Cowboys and all of them gave honor to Thryl Latting for their interest in horses and the rodeo.
Who was Thyrl Latting? To find out I spoke with his son Mike Latting who now heads the Latting Rodeo Productions. Mike told me that his father loved watching westerns at the movie theater. “ He did not really understand at the time that he couldn’t be a cowboy, although they were all white that he saw on TV, it’s something that he aspired to do and want to become.”
Thyrl bought his first horse when he was 17 years old and kept it in his family’s back yard in Robbins, Illinois. After a while he began competing in rodeos riding bucking horses and bulls but Latting wanted to do more. He wanted his own rodeo company. Mike went on to tell me, “it wasn’t long before he brought his own horses and bulls and kind of branched out from there and started Latting Rodeo Productions. And after that, he wanted to bring the history of the Black cowboy to the inner-city kids, thus creating the Thyrl Latting Rodeo Spectacular, the rodeo that you saw at the Amphitheater.”
Thyrl Latting wasn’t just a cowboy, he was a high school shop teacher at CVS and Dunbar in Chicago. This was where Murdock (the cowboy with no first name) met him and it changed his life. “Thyrl was a good mentor to a lot of us. Because of him, it gave a lot of Black people an opportunity to compete in the rodeo arena where they didn’t get an opportunity to do before because it was in the arena of what the white folks were doing.”
Mike and his sister Tracy not only followed their father into the Rodeo ring, Mike as in bareback riding and the bull riding, and Tracy as a barrel raiser but they both became teachers. Mike retired from being a Principle 3 years ago, and Tracy is a teacher at a school in Orland, Illinois. Mike explained to me that being a cowboy and a teacher isn’t that far apart, “I think a lot of people would really be surprised at how much those two careers go hand in hand. As opposite and as different as they sound, it’s about people, because rodeo involves people and education is about people and it involves kids. And there really, as far as the concept of what we thought about it in rodeo and education, they pretty much married each other. And I know that may sound weird, but there’s a lot of kids that got on the right track because of rodeo. And they passed through the Lattings.”
If you have never experienced the rodeo don’t fear. Mike takes the rodeo to various fairs throughout the summer, but they are still putting on, good clean family entertainment for families, children, and everyone at the Pembroke Rodeo which is held on Memorial Day weekend. It’s at the Latting ranch down in Pembroke, Illinois, just East of Kankakee. “It’s a really fun time, a lot of people in Chicago come up to it since we don’t have the Amphitheater anymore. It’s outside, but it’s on a 65-acre ranch area where the arena is. And a lot of people camp, spend the night, it’s a two-day performance, Saturday and Sunday. I invite everyone to come out and have a great time.”
I have marked my calendar for Memorial Day weekend 2021. Maybe I will see you at the rodeo!
Until next time, keep your EYE to the sky!!!