HOUSTON (AP) – Fifty years ago, African American cowboy Paul Cleveland rode a paint horse named Stardust into the Astrodome – and the record books.
Considered a trailblazer, Cleveland was part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s 1966 debut in what was billed as the world’s first domed stadium.
He won first place in the paint horse registered calf-roping event that year. The horse, which he’d trained to help him rope a calf without any direction other than being commanded to go, was recognized the following year as the best judged roping horse of its breed.
Cleveland’s success, which came at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, helped lead to his 2008 induction into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame.
Now 80 and a survivor of three strokes, Cleveland travels by wheelchair instead of by horse. It’s a tame ride for a seasoned cowboy. But the health setbacks haven’t diminished Cleveland’s passion for horses. Though he can no longer ride, he keeps two horses – a pinto and a sorrel – that he continues to train on leased ranchland near his Spring home.
Cleveland also spends two days a week sharing his rodeo stories with young people at Mr. C’s, an old-time barbershop off Farm Road 1960 where an entire wall is covered with photos of teens whom he and the shop’s owner, Charles Jones, have mentored. They come there to learn not only about horses, but life, including the value of hard work – from sweeping up hair at the shop to shoveling manure at the ranch.
“One of my arms is partially paralyzed and my hands don’t work that good no more,” Cleveland told the Houston Chronicle as he rubbed one twisted hand. He also has torn cartilage in one knee and a discolored white eye, which lost sight when a branch struck him while he chopped down a tree.
“But I can’t let go of my horses,” Cleveland said. “I got that country in me. A person is going to follow what he knows.”
Cleveland’s father was a sharecropper and ranch foreman in Sealy, about 50 miles west of downtown Houston. He had Cleveland riding a horse by age 6.
The 10th of 11 children, Cleveland grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity. He and his family traveled from farm to farm, picking cotton when they weren’t using horses to herd cattle or plow their own fields to plant crops.
“I could pick 120 pounds of cotton a day when I was 14. It wasn’t hard if you knew how to avoid pricking your fingers,” he said.
Soft-spoken, he was a God-fearing lad, but at times he feared his father’s discipline more.
“When I was 16, I was late coming home one night. My father had rules. I knew he’d be waiting for me in the dark to give me a whipping.” So he never went back. With help from an older brother, he rented a room and landed a job loading watermelons on a truck.
In the ninth grade, he met his future wife, Barbara, and left school; she went on to obtain her diploma.
“We were 17 when we got married. So our parents had to sign for us,” Cleveland said.
The couple – married now for 63 years – have three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
That same perseverance helped him succeed on the rodeo circuit, too.
“He was one of the early pioneer rodeo cowboys – a real trailblazer for the African American,” said Gloria Reed Austin, co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. Cleveland is among 86 inductees, from various ethnic and racial groups, who are listed in the organization’s hall of fame.
“We want to correct the misnomer that there were only White cowboys,” she said. “Some historians believe one out of four of the cowboys on the cattle trails were Black.”
Harold Cash, a Black rodeo star who was the All-American Rodeo Association’s bareback champion in 1979 and 1981, was among those who nominated Cleveland.
“He mentored me when I was coming up,” Cash recalled. “If it weren’t for people like him, we would not have people today like Charlie Thompson, who became the first Black world-champion bull rider in 1982.”
Cleveland worked his way up during the era of racial segregation, when it wasn’t uncommon for the rodeo official with a stopwatch to be deliberately slow at riding events.
“Those were touchy times,” he said after being prodded. “I remember getting my wife a new stopwatch, and getting her to clock my times when I was calf roping. A lot of times her time would be shorter. But in those days, you just shut your mouth and kept going. I learned a bunch about how people work and eventually I beat ‘em.”
In fact, when he began his rodeo career in his early 20s, he was not allowed to participate in most of the “White rodeos” at county fairs. Blacks were usually relegated to being spectators, forced to sit in unlit areas separated by a rope from the White attendees.
Once, he was offered a chance to ride in one of the fairs but was told he had to do the calf roping without a bridle. “I was going to be a special attraction. But I was too scared to ride that way. So I let a friend use my horse and he won,” he chuckled.
His big win in the Astrodome occurred at a turbulent time, sandwiched between Congress’ passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination in schools and the workplace and Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
By his mid-20s, Cleveland says, he’d built a reputation as an expert horse trainer with White customers, who paved the way for him to ride their horses in the rodeos.
His horse sense is self-taught, friends say. To perfect those skills, his older brother, James, helped him acquire his first horse, “Spike.” They also built a makeshift trailer using some scrap metal, plywood and a bedspread to cover the top.
“I’ll never forget seeing him feed seven or eight horses at his ranch,” said Jones, the owner of Mr. C’s barbershop. “They would all get in line. None of them cutting in front of the others or rushing, but instead taking turns.” Each would trot down an aisle and around a pole, nudge the door open to the stall where the food was stored, eat its share and close the door. Then the next would come along.
Cleveland said he can tell what a horse is thinking by closely watching its eyes as well as the various movements of its ears, tail and hooves. He doesn’t care if a horse is a purebred, looking instead for things such as a 4 1/2-inch spread between the eyes and a special round cowlick in the hair on the back of its head.
In 1990, Cleveland trained a horse named “Bugs” for his nephew, Howard. They placed first in the registered Appaloosa calf roping competition at the Astro Arena that year, and were later named world champions at the timed calf-roping event at the Appaloosa show at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth.
He was also one of the few to receive a lifetime achievement certificate in 2008 from the American Paint Horse Association for training that breed.
“He loves to mentor kids, too,” said Jones, the barber. “His kids have raised grand-champion bulls, pigs and calves at least four or five times.”
Cleveland proved so successful at picking winning calves at Cypress Fairbanks that officials there once banned him from helping students make their selections.
These days, he mostly enjoys telling stories at the barber shop. He’s considering writing a book to hand down his secrets to the next generation of cowboys.
Cleveland stated, “I just can’t quit.”