My first encounter with the advertisement for Concrete Cowboy intrigued me: Cowboys riding horses in the city of Philadelphia, any city for that matter. It seemed like a story of juxtaposition and I loved the idea. It also starred my mini-crush, Idris Elba, so I added it to my watch list.
When I began watching the movie, I realized how much of a contrasting concept the story contained. It isn’t just about cowboys riding horses within city limits, it’s about a community of Black cowboys living life, with cowboy rules and ways that built character and family with one another.
I kept thinking it would be cool if this was real. So many stories, even fairy tales are built upon an element of truth. It’s partially why we love them. The movie was good, heart-wrenching, and inspirational.
I had to look this up, and wonderfully, the film is based on a real community of Black cowboys in Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Urban Riders.
Communities of Black cowboys have been around for over 100 yrs. It’s estimated that in the late 19th century, Black cowboys made up 25% of the community and they helped establish the West.
As amazed and thrilled as I was to find that this community truly exists, I was equally horrified that once again there is a piece of history we do not know. I am not saying we can know all our collective history because we can’t and don’t. Yet important history has gone unmentioned or has been eliminated from the history books. And I have an issue with that. Don’t even get me started on who the first woman to fly around the world actually is.
The film doesn’t tell the exact story of this community, but that is its foundation. And one of the threads in the story is its need to fight to protect its existence.
In Brewerytown, another cowboy community within Philadelphia, they lost their fight having their stables seized and destroyed. A raid on the Fletcher Street location destroyed a corral and a century-old stable. Later with the help of a benefactor, they acquired three lots on Fletcher Street, where they used the space to train, ride, and walk the horses. Then, after a year-long land dispute between the riders and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), the land was ultimately sold to the PHA for $1. They have since broken ground to build affordable housing for seniors, leaving little space for approximately 30 horses stabled on Fletcher Street.
It is disheartening to find that we are so ready to push out something with such deep history, rather than figure out a way to incorporate it into our way of life. Sometimes we gotta move over to make room, squeeze our chairs closer together to get that extra chair in at the table.
Allowing this piece of Americana to fade into our ghosted halls of history without doing anything to save it would be a sad footnote to its legacy.
If you are so inclined, the Fletcher Street Urban Cowboys has a GoFundMe set up to help them fight this erasure.
Maybe we non-Fletcher Street Riders may never ride a horse in the city, but we can help that city see its need for horses and that the past does have a place in the present.
Further reading on Black cowboys in America: