Rural Missouri Magazine

Cowboys of color

Meet a storyteller with a mission to preserve the African-American cowboy's heritage

by Heather Berry

Wil Robinson’s life began under less than perfect circumstances. His father died when Wil was 2 years old, his mother when he was 4. But if you ask Wil what he thinks, he’ll just smile and say, “That’s OK, God’s got me covered.”

Today Wil has risen above his humble beginnings to become a cowboy storyteller, educating audiences across the nation about African-American heroes of the American West.

Cowboy Wil Robinson keeps the African-American frontier alive sharing pioneer tales.

After his mother died, Wil and his siblings went to live with his Uncle Kingsley and Aunt Regina Frey in Topeka. His uncle, an expert in breaking and training draft horses, taught those same skills to young Wil as he helped on the farm.

“He taught me not to go at something haphazardly,” says Wil, 56, “and to put enough of myself into whatever I’m doing so I’d be proud of a project when I was finished.”

Wil never forgets the many questions he asked his uncle about his black heritage. In 1996 he decided to turn that passion for knowledge into something he could share with the rest of the world. He started Black West Presentations, Inc., a not-for-profit business that teaches the heritage and history of the African-American cowboy.

Against an elaborate backdrop, Wil steps onto the stage in full cowboy regalia and “becomes” one of the many black Western heroes such as cowboy trail-blazer Bose Ikard, steer wrestler Bill Pickett and bronc buster Ned Huddleston, also known by the nickname Isom Dart. Wil also includes stories about his mentors Uncle Kingsley and his ancestor George Robinson, who rode for the Pony Express.

With only the change of his hat, Wil steps into each character’s life. One of his favorites is Nat Love, an emancipated slave who earned the name “Deadwood Dick” after winning numerous roping and shooting contests out west.

Wil calls his presentation “Cowboys of Color,” and takes it to schools, theaters and rodeo events all across the United States. His one-man show has been at Branson’s Silver Dollar City, Coterie Theater in Kansas City and is currently performed across the United States as part of the Great American Wild West Show.

“I had no formal training in storytelling,” says Wil, a member of Osage Valley Electric Coopera-tive, “but I had a cousin who helped me out with a little method acting advice.”

That cousin happened to be movie and TV actor George Moses Gunn, probably remembered most for his role as Joe Kagan in the series “Little House on the Prairie.”

As early as age 8, Wil says he remembers peppering his Uncle Kingsley with questions about his heritage and asking things like why he didn’t see many other black farmers or black cowboys around town.

“My uncle answered all my questions,” says Wil, “and he taught me about my family and the importance of knowing your heritage. That’s stuck with me all my life.”

After high school, Wil joined the Marine Corps, serving as a combat photographer in Vietnam. But no matter where he was stationed, Wil found a stable and rode horses in his spare time. After he left the service, Wil bought a few horses of his own to break and ride.

A cowboy to the core, Wil went on to became a professional bronc rider. He describes the experience as “jumping out of a 10-story window with a 2,000-pound suitcase in your hand.”

It was a thrill he loved, but he realized he couldn’t do it forever.

“You just have to know when to quit. One of the last times I rode, a horse rolled over on me and stepped on my chest,” says Wil, who competed for 15 years. “That helped me decide to retire from bronc riding.”

Sadly, Wil’s Uncle Kingsley didn’t live to see him perform his “Cowboys of Color” presentation, but many of his children have.

“A couple of years ago the family held a huge family reunion and they asked me to do my program for them,” says Wil. “A lot of them didn’t know how I’d come to live with Uncle King and Aunt Regina or how he taught me about my heritage. Uncle Kingsley would always tell me, ‘You’re never gonna know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.’”

And that’s what cowboy storyteller Wil Robinson wants to share through his program.

“I want the audience to become aware of African-American heroes and everyday people in the history of the American West,” says Wil. “And I especially want to inspire today’s African-American youth to catch the meaning of their heritage and to take it forward with them in the future.”

Wil has also created the Cowboys of Color Educational History Game and is finishing his book “Cowboys of Color — Yesterday and Today,” scheduled to be published later this year.

Cowboy Wil also has another subtle message he hopes to get across to all his audiences.

“We’re all God’s children, and we are called to honor him,” says Wil. “I want everyone, especially the youth today, to know that they can do anything because God is on their side giving them the strength to tackle it all.”

It’s a colorful, as well as powerful message of good news for all races to hear and draw upon today.

You may contact cowboy storyteller Wil Robinson at Black West Presentations, Inc., 23900 S. Airport Rd., Harrisonville, MO 64701; (816) 626-3763.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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