DENVER – Denver impresario Lu Vason has died, leaving a legacy of creating opportunities for black cowboys and of celebrating a little-known aspect of Western history.
The 76-year-old Vason, who founded the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo three decades ago, died Sunday in a Denver hospital of heart complications, family spokesman Wil Alston said.
Vason, who was also a music promoter, named his rodeo circuit for a famed black cowboy and Wild West showman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vason saw it as a platform for promoting young black cowboys and entertaining audiences as well as educating them about blacks who helped build the West. He staged competitions around the country, including an annual championship in Washington, D.C., and a Martin Luther King Day rodeo in Denver.
"Lu leaves an indelible mark on Denver's cultural scene and Western heritage that will never be forgotten," Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in a statement.
Vason would often talk about attending a rodeo in Wyoming decades ago and wondering why he saw no black competitors, Alston said. He knew cow hand was the kind of job blacks, Native Americans and other minorities would have held in the early days of the West. Vason did more research, and started his rodeo in part "to make sure the stories of black cowboys got told," Alston said.
Marcous Friday, who went from competing on the Bill Pickett circuit to announcing for Vason and then organizing and promoting rodeos himself in his home state of Oklahoma, said he didn't grow up hearing about the history of blacks in the West.
"Now, today, you can get the history just by going to the Bill Pickett (Invitational Rodeo) website," Friday said in a telephone interview from Tulsa. He added that in the 1950s and 1960s, black cowboys were barred from the main rodeo circuit.
Friday said that before he saw his first Vason rodeo, he hadn't realized blacks in other states were active in the sport, even though it was "a way of life" among his friends and family.
A high school rodeo competitor had a reaction similar to Friday's when he saw his first Vason rodeo in the 1990s. "I was like, really, there's this many black cowboys?" Isaac King said in a telephone interview from Natchez, Mississippi.
King later competed on the Bill Pickett circuit.
Then he got a job with Vason's organization, working his way up to director of calf roping. He was ready a few years later when he was asked if he could help out with an annual rodeo in Natchez that commemorates the end of slavery. King persuaded performers he'd met on the Bill Pickett circuit to compete in Natchez and now organizes rodeos in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Vason was concerned about the future of young people, particularly young black men, longtime friend Les Franklin said. Franklin, whose two sons committed suicide, founded the Shaka Franklin Foundation for Youth, dedicated to suicide prevention. Vason bought seats for a table and attended the foundation's annual fundraising luncheon last month, even though he was ailing, Franklin said.
"He gave and he encouraged others to give," Franklin said. "He showed his love by the way he gave."
Vason is survived by his wife, Valeria Howard-Vason, who was vice president of the rodeo organization; a sister; seven children; and 15 grandchildren. His memorial service is scheduled for Friday in Denver.