When Wilbert Freeman McAlister – more commonly known as “Cowboy” – walks into a room, people notice him. Known for wearing cowboy boots, shirts engraved with his name, ostentatious belt buckles and crisp leather cowboy hats under a head full of white hair, he has earned his nickname.
Freeman has served as president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association (OBCA) for the past two decades. Founded nearly 50 years ago by Lonnie Scoggins, a former cowboy who roamed the Southwestern Range before settling in Oakland, the association promotes the heritage of black cowboys in the Wild West. .
Roommates John Gamiño (Eli’s Mile High Club talent buyer) and James Manson recall seeing McAlister perform with his band, Cowboy and His Sometimes Blues, at Eli’s Mile High Club for the first time.
“I wasn’t the wisest of black cowboys, and he just walked in strutting,” Gamiño said. “I thought ‘who is this guy that comes and owns the place?’ Everyone revolves around him.
After learning more about her story, the couple decided to make a documentary about McAlister and the history of OBCA. The short film, titled Cowboy, is now completed after a complicated filming schedule due to the pandemic, and it will debut this weekend at Eli’s Mile High Club. Manson is the director and editor, while Gamiño is the producer and songwriter.
When Gamiño and Manson first approached McAlister about the film, McAlister said he knew it was the right thing to do. “I felt good and positive,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t a sham.”
When: Saturday, October 2 at 7 p.m.
Where: Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Buy your tickets here.
Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination are required to enter the site.
The film features interviews with McAlister where he talks about his Navy service at the Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco, his move to East Oakland, and how he discovered his cowboy lineage. It also explains the importance of preserving the history of black cowboys in America. Images of Oakland and Madera, Calif., Where McAlister is from, are featured, in addition to shots inside Eli’s Mile High Club, where McAlister performs during the “Blues Mondays”.
Everyone involved in the making of the film volunteered their time for the production to take place. The team was only able to film one day in March 2020 before the shelter-in-place began and could not resume filming until that summer. “We wanted to have a lot of live performance footage [from Eli’s], but there was a lot of expectation, ”Gamiño said.
Manson wishes they could have done more, but hopes this film generates enough interest to work on an even bigger project.
“We need to remind people of the incredible history of this country. This is especially important in today’s political climate, where people are questioning the traditional narratives that have been served to us for so long, ”Manson said. “There’s the story we’ve been taught, but it’s not always the right one.
McAlister hopes the film will spark interest among young people to learn more about the OBCA and its mission. The association has struggled in recent years to involve the new generations. Currently, the organization has about 25 active members, and most are cowboys in their sixties.
How to support the Oakland Black Cowboys Association
- To volunteer, register here.
- Click here to join.
- To make a donation, visit the association’s website.
“I worry about the young people,” McAlister said. “They don’t come to join as members. They are all excited when we go somewhere with the horses, but we don’t have the kids that I would like to see join.
OBCA is known in the community for participating in community events. They had to postpone many of them, which helped fundraising efforts to keep the OBCA afloat. The organization also had to cancel its annual parade two years in a row, which usually takes place the first weekend in October at DeFremery Park.
Instead of the parade this weekend, the documentary will preview as part of a fundraising event at Eli’s on Saturday at 7 p.m. All profits from ticket sales, raffle tickets and 20% of food and drink sales will be donated to the association. The event will feature a question-and-answer session and a live performance by Cowboy and his Sometimes Blues Band.
“It is a great help and a boost for the organization that this establishment [Eli’s Mile High Club] and these gentlemen take the time to say “we are going to do something for this community”. I really appreciate it, ”McAlister said.