Many pleasant memories of my time as an urban horseman in North Philadelphia overwhelmed me when I watched the new Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy, a fictional drama loosely based on the Fletcher Street Stable, a renowned home for the city’s Black cowboys.
The movie brought to mind sights, sounds, and, oh, the smells of bygone days, when my wife and I saddled up horses and spent quiet Sunday mornings and afternoons riding through Fairmount Park.
As a young journalist returning to Philadelphia to be married and to begin a new job in 1986, I settled in the city’s Tioga section with my bride, the daughter of one of the city’s Black cowboys. My father-in-law, Allen Phillips, was a leader at the Western Wranglers stable at 31st and Oxford Streets, not far from the smaller Fletcher Street Stable. It was one of a few Black stables in the city.
A boyhood love of horses connected Phillips to the stable inside an old warehouse in a mostly abandoned valley that was a short gallop from the lush fields of Fairmount Park. At the stable, he kept several of the horses and ponies he enjoyed riding so much, before health problems began to slow him down.
His passion for horses ran so deep that for our wedding he suggested we use horse-drawn carriages to transport the bridal party and the groomsmen through the streets of Tioga to Laurel Hill Mansion, one of the park’s great mansions, where we would share our vows. That slow, 30-minute ride was not to be forgotten. The bride’s carriage was white, the groom’s black. People waved and blew their horns as we rolled along Hunting Park Avenue to 33rd Street.
After this, my wife and I rode his horses for hours almost every Sunday. Most times we would ride up a hill at the end of the stable grounds and into Fairmount Park at 33rd Street. Sometimes we would pack lunch, but most times we would just ride through the thick grass, where galloping hooves made a dull thumping sound.
Other times we would ride with some of the cowboys from the stable, though I never considered myself a cowboy because my skill level was nowhere near those of the longtime stable members, and wearing a cowboy hat simply was not my style. I wore western boots, tan suede chaps, and a generic baseball cap. My wife wore English gear, including the classic black velvet helmet.
We would trot with the cowboys through the streets of North and West Philadelphia, the hooves providing a clip-clopping drumbeat. One evening we joined some of the cowboys for a ride through the park to a bar in the Parkside section that welcomed riders.
It was a place where African American culture merged with the city’s horseback scene. Outside there was a hitching post for the horses, inside we were welcomed with the sound of funky music and a very impressive soul-food buffet.
My father-in-law introduced us to the stable hands and most of the riders at Western Wranglers, guys we knew only by nicknames such as Soup, Skeet, Booty, and Country June, who helped to school us greenhorns to the ways of keeping and riding horses in the city.
These men taught us how to groom and care for the horses, how to keep them well-shod and fed and in the good care of a vet. Of course these lessons included the fine points of mucking stalls. This, the least desirable of stable chores, was highlighted in Concrete Cowboy, as the young protagonist struggled to establish himself at Fletcher Street, one shovel-full at a time.
In about a year, a long-term ailment claimed the life of my father-in-law. Before he died he asked my wife and me to take care of his last beloved horses Coltrane and Sassy and the ponies. We kept the animals there for another year, before moving them to a Chester County farm, a beautiful sprawling site with a massive white barn filled with about 10 other mounts.
On this land, the sound of motor traffic was nonexistent, the air clean and refreshing. We kept riding there, but months into my wife’s first pregnancy made those quiet Sunday rides less frequent. About a year later, the arrival of a baby and new demands led us to sell the horses.
Though decades have passed since my days as a rider, I still feel great kinship with the young people I sometimes see on horseback in the streets of this great city. They and the new movie, Concrete Cowboy, are keeping alive a long tradition and the spirit of Philadelphia’s iconic Black cowboys. Trot on.
Vernon Clark is a freelance writer and editor living in Philadelphia.