Its a black cowboy parade, but an old Jewish cowpoke has carried its banner

George Rothman is definitely no cowboy. He didn’t climb onto his first horse until he was 64 years old.

And he’s certainly no African American. The son of Ukrainian immigrants from Nezin and Odessa, he grew up in the densely Jewish world of 1920s Brooklyn and claims, “I don’t even think I saw a black person until I was 14.”

So how odd it is that the 87-year-old Oakland resident is the proud patriarch of the Black Cowboy Parade and Festival? Slated to begin 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, it’s been an annual event for 29 years, making it Oakland’s longest-running parade.

“George Rothman is the Black Cowboy Parade as far as Oakland is concerned,” said KGO-Channel 7 sportscaster Martin Wyatt, one of many celebrity masters of ceremonies and grand marshals the parade has had. “He’s carried the banner, almost by himself, for nearly three decades.”

Funny, but when Rothman was a young man in Brooklyn, that sing-song prairie command, “Get a-long, little do-gie,” probably would have sent him scrambling for a foot-long at one of the three hot dog stands he owned.

But after moving to Oakland in 1965, he began serving on an Oakland museum committee in charge of ethnic exhibits and history. At one meeting, someone began talking about black cowboys, and the committee was stymied. Black cowboys? From that discussion came the parade and the Black Cowboy Association, which runs the parade. Rothman became a founding member in 1975.

“So very little then was known about black cowboys,” Rothman said. “Today, a little more is known, but it’s still a pretty closed subject.”

The purpose of the parade is twofold.

First, it honors the heritage of the black cowboy — acknowledging pioneers such as pathfinder James Beckwourth, rodeo artist Bill Pickett and cowboy Nat Love.

It also highlights African Americans’ often forgotten contributions in the settling of the Old West. After blacks were freed from slavery, many took jobs as ranch hands and already had the talents instrumental in becoming skilled cowboys. One legend even has it that the term “cowboy” originated from African American ranch hands who herded cattle on foot; they were the “boys” sent into the hard-to-reach canyons and thickets to drive out straggling cows. Another piece of history credits a black cowboy known as Estavanico with exploring and discovering Texas.

Rothman, who once donned cowboy gear and went to the Eastmont mall in East Oakland to promote the parade, points out that before the turn of the 20th century, one out of every four or five cowboys was black. “You have to come to the conclusion that so many black accomplishments are just ignored in our history, which makes me angry,” he said.

In an Oakland Tribune article about the parade six years ago, a man was quoted as saying: “The only black cowboys most kids have heard of are Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders or Michael Irvin [of the NFL Dallas Cowboys]. I take my kids to the parade every year. It’s great.”

Another function of the parade is to showcase current-day “cowboys.” That loose term applies to just about anyone who wants to climb onto a pinto, palomino or any other horse and clippetty-clop from DeFremery Park in West Oakland through the streets of downtown Oakland, including a one-block stint down Broadway.

Included in this group of about 130 are men and women who work on farms and ranches, ride horses for recreation or for show, or had ancestors who were ranchers. A few are rodeo competitors. Some riders do tricks with their horses before a panel of judges. A lot of kids participate, including about 15 members of the Wildcat Canyon Ranch program affiliated with the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department.

“The parade offers the opportunity for all of these people to come together every year and see each other,” said Kenneth “Sonny” Wesley, a black cowboy, or African American horseman as he calls himself. “It’s the Super Bowl of cowboys.”

Wesley, who runs the Wildcat Canyon Ranch program, is one of many people who offer praise for Rothman — in 10-gallon fashion.

“I take my hat off to him,” he said, “and give him all the accolades because he so richly deserves them. He didn’t start the Black Cowboys Association, but he came into it and made the parade a viable function.

“With all the politicking and fund-raising he’s done, and each and every year throughout his life — he gave it so much of his time and so much of his life. If it wasn’t for George, this parade would have fallen apart 20 or so years ago. It would have been just another event that would have come and gone for the city of Oakland.”

Said Henry Linzie, the longtime president of the BCA: “George kept me going, and I kept him going. I remember meeting with city council people, and if we heard ‘No,’ from one person, we’d just go to another office until we heard ‘Yes.'”

It seems natural that Rothman would get involved in preserving African American history. While he was in the Navy during World War II, Rothman recalls witnessing a black pianist having his fingers broken by a white Southern officer who thought he was “uppity.” And he remembers the many business cards handed to him by Realtors proclaiming “No blacks” when he moved to Oakland in the 1960s.

Those experiences, and his background as a union organizer in New York “led me to the inequities of American society,” he said. “Maybe because I feel something for the oppressed, being one of them after all. African Americans haven’t gotten a fair shake in this country. It’s just not right.”

Rothman was born in 1916 in Brooklyn. His father, a presser in the garment industry, died only four years after his son’s bar mitzvah. The young Rothman took on various jobs to support his mother and two siblings in Brownsville, and eventually bought a few hot dog stands (not kosher, he admits). “I thought I was going to be the second Nathan’s,” he said.

One of his stands was in Harlem, where Rothman said he met and became friendly with Malcolm X. A few years before that, he had met Martin Luther King Jr.

Rothman decided to move his family from Brooklyn to Oakland after his mother died. Once there, Rothman said he didn’t maintain any religious ties. He earned his living mainly as a business consultant, most notably as a hired fund-raiser for various groups.

What he enjoyed most, he said, was being involved in the community. He founded an employment agency for minorities, was president of a legal aid society, served on the Oakland Museum of California ethnic guild and worked with the Neighborhood Youth Corps, where he met Linzie, then a teenager, in West Oakland in the late 1960s.

“George had me be a team leader,” remembered Linzie, 52, who has worked for the Oakland Library for 32 years.

Two years ago Rothman finally gave up the reins of the Black Cowboy Association and stopped doing the day-to-day operations of the parade.

But he’s still the director of the 150-member BCA, and although he’s had some health problems recently, he remains very active. A recent listing for the parade in an East Bay publication cited his home phone number as the one to call for more information.

His hillside house in Oakland’s Dimond District, where he and his wife of 57 years, Bea, have lived for 37 years, is teeming with parade paraphernalia, including stacks of testimonials from politicos such as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and state Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland). The Rothmans have one son, Stuart, 48.

On a bookshelf cluttered with stacks of old parade materials, a poster from 2000 droops over a copy of Fred Mustard Stewart’s book “Ellis Island.” Other old posters reveal a list of some past celebrity parade participants: actor Danny Glover; Oakland Mayors Elihu Harris, Lionel Wilson and Jerry Brown; former Oakland Raider Gene Upshaw and others. Past entertainers have included the O’Jays, the Spinners and the Dells.

One of Rothman’s laments is that not very many non-African Americans attend the parade. Though the event has attracted participants from near and far — including Buffalo Soldiers from Oklahoma and a Calgary Stampede rodeo queen, Rothman regrets that it has not sparked much interest among Bay Area whites.

Crowds are usually large — about 6,000 to 8,000 spectators. “And in 29 years, we’ve never had any kind of negative incident,” Rothman said “I’m very proud of this fact.”

In a bit of sad irony, though, perhaps a lot of Bay Area residents have never heard of the parade because it hasn’t generated negative news — unlike some other Oakland events over the past decade.

“This parade is something that’s really great, something that a lot of people really look forward to,” said Oakland’s Billie Wright, a local rodeo queen who has participated on and off since 1987 and is one of this year’s co-grand marshals.

“I hope the parade continues on and on.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.