Breaking barriers - Black bull rider writes about life on rodeo circuit

By KELLI LACKETT
from the Coloradoan

When bull rider Abe Morris moved to Laramie, Wyo., in 1974 to attend the University of Wyoming, he already had two strikes against him in the eyes of many in the rodeo world.

One: He was from New Jersey.

And two: He was black.

It didn't help that Morris didn't wear a trophy belt buckle despite the fact that he'd been competing in rodeo events since the age of 10.

"Every time someone meets you, they look at your buckle and try to get a sense of your ability. That's how people judge you," Morris said. "Most kids looked at me and thought I was a nobody."

In the West, young rodeo competitors often earned belt buckles from Little Britches - a junior rodeo association - and high school rodeos, but Morris didn't have such competitive opportunities in Woodstown, New Jersey, where he grew up on a dairy farm.

And in New Jersey, rodeo competitors were "98 percent white guys," said Morris, who chose the University of Wyoming because he wanted to compete on a college rodeo team.

"Out here it was 99.9 percent," he said. "There were about maybe ten of us competing at rodeos (in New Jersey). When I came out here, I was a fly in the milk bowl. I stood out."

Morris, who lived in Fort Collins from 1986 to 1998, has written candidly about his experience competing as a bull rider in professional rodeos for nearly two decades in a new book due out by April 1, "My Cowboy Hat Still Fits."

The book chronicles his boyhood dreams of competing in rodeos, the joys and challenges of moving West and competing as a black bull rider in a largely white culture and the perils of riding 1,800-pound bulls. An injury ended Morris' competitive bull riding career in 1994, but he remained in the rodeo world as an announcer and television commentator.

"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a rodeo cowboy," Morris said. "I basically lived out my dreams and I never faltered from that."

At the urging of some of his coworkers at TIAA-CREF in Denver, where he works as a representative for the pension and retirement savings company, Morris decided a few years ago to put his rodeo experiences on paper.

He is not aware of another book-length biography of one black cowboy living in the modern era, although a few have been written about historical cowboys. Black cowboys played - and continue to play - an important role in the making of the West, but they are sometimes called the "forgotten cowboys" because history books and Westerns largely overlooked them.

A member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, Morris qualified eight times for the Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo and twice for the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo.

Bull riders are judged on a 100-point-system based on the fierceness of the bull and quality and form of the ride, Morris said. And, of course, they have to stay on the beast for at least eight seconds.

"People can see five or six guys get 90 points, but they are going to talk about the person who got stomped. People don't go to see someone get hurt, but if someone is going to get hurt, they don't want to miss it," Morris said.

"It's an extremely hard sport," he said. "You have to have a different mindset. You have to get a little crazy."

While his fellow competitors never treated him differently because of the color of his skin, that was not always true of the judges, Morris said.

"When I wrote the book I told it from an honest perspective. ... I felt like if I was white I would have won more money," he said. "In those days the judges were old school cowboys from the '50s. They were former contestants who didn't ride any more. Some of them were probably a little prejudiced. ... There were times I competed and they announced my score and the crowd booed."

"My peers were great," Morris said. "Sometimes they'd come up to me afterward and say, 'Man you got screwed.' "

Morris never competed in any of the national black rodeo association rodeos, such as the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, based in Denver, or the Cowboys of Color, a rodeo circuit for black, American Indian and Hispanic cowboys and cowgirls.

"I didn't want to be a big fish in a little pond in any association. It was never anything against the black rodeos."

The only black announcer in the PRCA, Morris announced Cheyenne Frontier Days for nine years. But despite his storied career with the PRCA, he said the highlight of his career was winning the college rodeo on the campus of the University of Wyoming in 1978.

The American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming is archiving memorabilia from Morris' rodeo career.