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When Wilbert Freeman McAlister — more typically referred to as “Cowboy” — enters a room, people take notice. Known to sport cowboy boots, shirts engraved with his name, ostentatious belt buckles, and crisp leather cowboy hats under a full head 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, an ex-cowboy who rode the Southwest range before settling in Oakland, the nonprofit promotes the legacy of the Black cowboys in the wild west.
Roommates John Gamiño (talent buyer at Eli’s Mile High Club) and James Manson remember seeing McAlister perform with his band, Cowboy and His Sometimes Blues, at Eli’s Mile High Club for the first time.
“I was none the wiser of the Black cowboys, and he just came strutting in,” Gamiño said. “I thought ‘who is this guy who comes in and owns the place?’ Everyone just gravitates to him.”
After learning more about his story, the pair decided they wanted to make a documentary about McAlister and the history of OBCA. The short film, titled Cowboy, is now complete after a complicated film 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 composer.
When Gamiño and Manson first approached McAlister about the film, McAlister said he knew it was a good thing to do. “I felt good and positive,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t a sham.”
When: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m.
Where: Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Purchase tickets here.
Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination are required to enter the venue.
The film features interviews with McAlister where he talks about serving in the Navy at the Hunters Point Naval shipyard in San Francisco, moving to East Oakland, and how he discovered his cowboy lineage. He also explains the importance of preserving the history of Black cowboys in America. Footage of Oakland and Madera, California, where McAlister is originally from, is featured, in addition to shots inside Eli’s Mile High Club, where McAlister performs on “Blues Mondays.”
Everyone involved in the making of the film donated their time to make the production happen. The crew was only able to film for one day in March 2020 before the shelter-in-place began and couldn’t resume filming until that summer. “We wanted to have lots of live performance footage [from Eli’s], but there was a lot of wait and see,” Gamiño said.
Manson wishes they could have done more but hopes that this film sparks interest enough to work on an even larger project.
“We need to remind people of the incredible history that this country has. It is especially important in a political climate right now, where people are challenging the traditional narratives that we’ve been served up for so long,” Manson said. “There’s the history we’ve been taught, but it is not always the correct one.”
McAlister hopes the film draws interest from younger people to learn about OBCA and its mission. The nonprofit has struggled in recent years to get newer generations involved. Currently, the organization has roughly 25 active members, and most are cowboys in their 70s.
“I worry about the youngsters,” McAlister said. “They are not coming in to join as members. They get all excited when we go somewhere with the horses, but we don’t have the youth that I’d like to see join.”
OBCA is known in the community to participate in community events. They’ve had to put off many of these, which had helped with fundraising efforts to keep OBCA afloat. The organization has also had to cancel its annual parade two years in a row, which typically takes place the first weekend of October at DeFremery Park.
In lieu of the parade this weekend, the documentary will premiere as part of a fundraising event at Eli’s Saturday at 7 p.m. All profits from ticket sales, raffle tickets, and 20% of food and drink sales will be donated to the nonprofit. The event will feature a Q&A and a live performance by Cowboy and His Sometimes Blues Band.
“This is a big help and boost for the organization that this establishment [Eli’s Mile High Club] and these gentlemen are taking time to say ‘we are going to do something for this community.’ I really appreciate it,” McAlister said.