Giddy Out: Will New York's Federation of Black Cowboys Be Sent Packing?
Arthur "J.R." Fulmore: Early on, "we'd try to duck" Mama Morse. It didn't work.
It was a breezy Saturday afternoon in March when I first visited the Federation of Black Cowboys in Queens. I met Kesha Morse, president of the FBC, to talk about the looming loss of the Cedar Lane Stables, which the group has managed for almost twenty years. Cars rushed past on Linden Boulevard and a faint scent of horse manure hung in the air. A slice of pizza in one hand and a pink lemonade in the other, Morse was wearing a fringed leather jacket that brushed her knees and a brown baseball cap with a silver horse medallion above the bill. Long, thick braids swung down her back, grazing her thighs.
Morse started hanging out at Cedar Lane in the Eighties, back when the FBC had a significant presence but was not yet managing the stables as an incorporated organization. Her love of horses came from her father, who began riding at the age of thirteen along the horse trails of Prospect Park. When he wasn't traveling the world competing in rodeos as a reiner — a category that involves maneuvering the animal through complex riding patterns — he was teaching his daughter horsemanship. She never let it go.
The FBC has allowed Morse to share her passion with the Howard Beach community for the past thirty years. Now, she says, because of recent hardships, its membership has dwindled and it is able to carry out just a fraction of its once robust programming; opening hours for the stable have also grown unpredictable.
"Mama" Kesha Morse: The Black Cowboys are about keeping kids "out of trouble."
Members of the FBC have spent two decades attempting to tell the true story of their heritage: that of the Black American West. During the glory days of the Western Frontier in the 1870s and '80s, 25 percent of an approximate 35,000 cowboys were black, a fact largely ignored by publications at the time and later by Hollywood and history books. Black presence was erased from the annals of the West, its stories and legends routinely appropriated by white culture. The Lone Ranger, for example, is considered by some historians to have been a black man by the name of Bass Reeves, not the chiseled white guys usually seen on screen.
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The FBC honors and shares this legacy through youth programs, rodeos, and school visits while also using horsemanship to teach local youth life skills such as patience, kindness, and tolerance. Members are known for their neighborhood rides, dressed in ten-gallon hats, boots, and leather jackets with fringe, often stopping to let children pet the horses or hop on for a ride. Morse describes their mission as one of keeping kids "out of trouble." She says that the FBC seeks "to use the uniqueness of horses as a way to reach inner-city children and expose them to more than what they are exposed to in their communities." In an area plagued by drugs and violence, the FBC is considered a safe haven — but eighteen years after its official incorporation, soon it may have to close its doors.
The FBC's recent troubles began in 2012, when six horses in its stables died within a short period. In the aftermath, Morse believes that papers ran skewed articles without including the real reasons for the horses' deaths. Two of the animals, which had lived in the FBC stables for most of their lives, were in their late thirties and died of old age, she says. Another had laminitis, a sometimes fatal inflammation of the hoof, and a fourth died giving birth — when it was admitted to the stables, she says, no one informed the FBC it was pregnant. The last two, Morse adds, were both privately owned by an individual who leased a stable stall, so the FBC had no oversight of their care; according to her, even the vet couldn't identify a cause of death.
In addition to the deaths, there were calls to the city from private boarders reporting poor conditions in the stable, including a lack of water and hay for the horses. One horse was allegedly eating the wood shavings from its bed in lieu of food. Morse insists that the stable conditions were satisfactory, but in the end, the city forced the FBC to evacuate and pay for renovations. Morse found the closure unfair and financially crippling and says it upset even the private boarders whose reports precipitated it. "That was a buckshot into the organization," she says.
When the organization reopened in 2013, official membership had fallen to an all-time low, down to twenty from around fifty. Boarding fees provide the majority of the FBC's income, so a financial tailspin took hold, a situation that is ongoing — and compounded by the upcoming loss of the license agreement for Cedar Lane Stables.
"Mountain Man" Ellis Harris: "I had cowboy in me all the time."
"Hey, ya bum!" Morse yells across the stable yard as a large, heavyset man with white hair approaches.
"Show this white man some love," he responds.
She laughs. They hug.
"How ya been?" she asks.
"Like dogshit," he says, "I'm all over."
Tom Hannaberry is a jovial horseshoer who has worked at Cedar Lane for over thirty years. Trailing behind him is his protégé, Marquise Jemmott, a buff young man in a pink T-shirt. He disappears into the stable and returns with a horse, tying it off a few feet away to hammer a nail into its hoof.
"You have to file them evenly," Jemmott says as he wrestles with the horse's leg.
Jemmott has been a member of the FBC since before he was born. His mother, Simone, was one of the first women to join, hanging out at the stables when she was pregnant. Now twenty-two, Jemmott was in the saddle by age four, and when he turned seventeen, Hannaberry hired him and taught him the craft of shoeing horses. He now travels the country earning a living as a shoer. Of the dozen or so kids Jemmott grew up with at the stables, seven left their membership behind by the time they were teenagers. Now, he says, they are all either dead or in jail.
"Where would I be without this place? It saved me," he says. "I've been making a living from this all my life, and I'm going to make a living from this for the rest of my life."
Although few of the youths the FBC has worked with have gone on to make a living in the field, the organization has still reached thousands of kids. For several years it partnered with the Department of Education on a dropout prevention program in the Bronx where children were rewarded for good attendance and behavior with Saturday trips to the stables. It hosted barbecues with pony rides and horsemanship lessons that brought in as many as 1,500 kids over the course of a day. The organization even turned out for block parties in the neighborhood and spoke at schools and museums. "[When] young children see us with the fringe jackets and the boots," Morse says, "that's an impression that stays with them for life."
In 1998, when the FBC officially incorporated, it signed a license agreement with the city's parks department to run Cedar Lane Stables as a "concession," one of approximately five hundred city-owned parkland parcels operated by private food service or recreation organizations. Holding a concession requires an annual fee, which is often divided up monthly. The city is careful not to call it rent, but the arrangement is almost identical.
When a license agreement expires, the city releases a public Request for Proposal (RFP) for the concession. It is a convoluted sealed bid process, and the factors the city deems favorable for an applicant — the potential for capital improvements, green building design — can require substantial financial resources, implying a "highest bidder wins" situation. Historically, the Federation was the only bidder for Cedar Lane and won back its land by default. But in August of 2015, when the most recent agreement ended and a new RFP was issued, the FBC was one of three bidders vying for the property. In February, the city informed Morse that the FBC didn't make the cut.
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A few weeks after my first visit I return to the stables with Morse to meet other FBC members. It's a warm day with clear skies, and as we cross the stable yard a gaggle of geese rears up to charge us, stiff-necked and squawking.
"Don't test me!" Morse yells at them without looking down.
First, Morse introduces me to Mountain Man, the grandfather of it all. Ellis Harris is 78 and burly, with a large beard and blue eyes. His wide-brimmed Stetson shadows his features, but his eyes are bright as he recounts his time with the Federation. Mountain Man came to New York from North Carolina, where he'd worked on farms. Once in the city, he attended the first black rodeo in Harlem, in 1972, which led him to the Federation of Black Cowboys. For years he competed in rodeos around the country, including FBC rodeos. "I had cowboy in me all the time," he says, telling stories of broken ribs and ankles from competitions and taming wild horses.
But those days are over. Now he is considered the official cook of the Federation. A purist, he practices Western-style cooking, using only charcoal, wood, and cast iron. "I'll fight you if you bring a paper plate on my scene," he says with a grin.
Next I meet longtime FBC member Arthur "J.R." Fulmore. We're standing near the wooden fence that runs along Linden Boulevard. His hair is bundled in a blue cloth under his hat, his eyes obscured behind dark shades. Like Mountain Man, Fulmore is a Southern transplant: Originally from North Carolina, he moved to Brooklyn when he was ten years old. His voice is deep, with a lingering Southern drawl.
Fulmore starts reminiscing about the old days, back when Morse was the only woman in the FBC. The men used to tell her the wrong meeting time for a ride, only to find her waiting for them at the stables.
"We'd try to duck her, we can't duck her," Fulmore says, laughing. He worked with the children at the stables back when the FBC's programming was robust and far-reaching. When I ask him if he knows Jemmott, the young shoer, he responds quickly, "That's my son." That's not technically the case, but Fulmore claims Jemmott as kin nonetheless, having watched him grow up in the Federation, taught him to ride, and accompanied him on trail rides along the East Coast. I learned early on in my visits that the FBC isn't just a club. Many members have spent most of their lives together and refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Everyone knows Morse as "Mama."
In June, Cedar Lane Stables will transfer to GallopNYC, a nonprofit whose mission is to aid adults and children with disabilities through the use of therapeutic horsemanship. Now in its eleventh year as an organization, GallopNYC has five locations throughout the city, and Cedar Lane Stables, soon to be renamed Gemini Fields, will be its sole dedicated site. The group serves more than 350 riders each week; compared with the FBC's current count of twenty members, there's no competition.
When I contacted the parks department for this story, a spokesperson identified GallopNYC's demonstration of "long-term financial solvency," along with "a solid operational plan" that will positively affect the local community, as background for its decision to award GallopNYC the license agreement. Within the terms of the RFP, the parks department sought applicants that could accommodate the FBC's continued presence at the stables.
GallopNYC and the FBC are currently discussing a boarding agreement to keep the FBC at the stables. The parks department is encouraging the conversation, but it is still in the initial stages. Whether or not the FBC will be able to afford the boarding fees presented to them is yet to be determined.
"We're happy to work with the Federation of Black Cowboys, and we hope we can reach an agreement that works for both of us," Alicia Kershaw, executive director of GallopNYC, tells the Voice.
At the end of my last visit, Morse drives me back to Downtown Brooklyn. The windows are down and East New York passes by on either side. Music from nearby cars hums beneath our conversation. Morse explains that the parks department has been instrumental in helping the FBC negotiate a potential extended stay at Cedar Lane Stables, and she is hopeful that her group will be able to continue their work in the years to come. Right now, however, she has no idea.
As we consider the possibility of an end, I ask why she first chose to ride at Cedar Lane thirty years ago, when there were other stables in the city closer to home. She explains that, from the start, she found kindred spirits and a family in the Federation. "It's about more than riding," she says. "Cowboy and cowgirl to me is something of the heart, something in the spirit."
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