Concrete Cowboy: Philadelphia's Storied, 100-Year History of Black Cowboy Culture
By Rashad Grove
Philadelphia holds the distinction of being called “the city of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” The city is surrounded by historical significance, cultural landmarks, and ethnic diversity. But one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a horse stable for urban youth riders and home to a thriving community of Black cowboys that have been in existence here for more than a century. It’s the mission of the club to promote horsemanship within the inner-city, provide equine therapy, and encourage academic excellence in the city's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Against all odds, and despite constant gentrification, Philadelphia's Black cowboys have made a home for themselves, their prized horses, and the preservation of their way of life for more than 100 years.
While the Black horsemanship community is well-established in this area, the nonprofit Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club as it exists now was only officially established in 2004 by Ellis Ferrell. Born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1939, Ferrell cultivated a love for the cowboy life at an early age while riding bulls on his grandmother’s farm. When he moved to Philadelphia as a teenager, Ferrell was intent on keeping the tradition alive in the big city up north. He not only believed that horse riding was the ultimate sport, but that caring for the animals had the potential to bring healing to the human spirit.
“Horse riding is not only therapeutic and instills discipline,” Ferrell says on the club's website, "but it enables a sense of empowerment to the disenfranchised and those living in communities of hopelessness.” As the cowboys take care of the horses, a kind of reciprocity takes place that allows those who pass through the club to adopt habits, life skills, and disciplines that inspire human flourishing.
Four decades after arriving in Philadelphia, Ferrell’s dream came true when he became leader of a stable of five horses on 31st and Master Streets in 1980. Now 82 years old, Ferrell is keeping the tradition alive by passing it down to his son Darrin who, along with the other volunteers, provides upkeep to the horses at the stable.
The story of Philadelphia's Black cowboys has transcended the city itself and garnered the national spotlight. Their legacy is the subject of a popular novel, Ghetto Cowboy, written by Greg Neri in 2011. The novel was recently adapted into a new movie titled Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba and Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin, who play a father and son attempting to repair their strained relationship. Rounding out the cast is Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, and Cliff “Method Man” Smith. Lee Daniels, two-time Academy Award nominee and a Philadelphia native, is one of the film's producers.
Concrete Cowboy—which will drop on Netflix on April 2, 2021—was shot on location at the Fletcher Street stables, with several of the group's real-life cowboys acting, performing stunts, and consulting to ensure the film's authenticity.
It was a chance encounter that brought the stables to the attention of Concrete Cowboy director Ricky Staub. He was working at his office in Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighborhood one day when he looked out his window "and there was this guy riding a carriage that was tricked out. I couldn’t believe it. The carriage had black rims and speakers. I ran down and talked to this gentleman who told me about Fletcher Street," Staub said. "Then I came across Greg Neri’s book, Ghetto Cowboy. I read it and thought that this had the potential to be an incredible film.”
While Concrete Cowboy is a piece of fiction, much of it hits close to home for Ferrell and his fellow urban cowboys—whose way of life is now being threatened. As Philadelphia's gentrification is moving at a rapid pace, the fate of the Fletcher Street stables currently hangs in the balance. Still, there are numerous efforts to save them from the city’s redevelopment plans. And Staub, for one, is committed to helping Fletcher Street in any way he can.
"From the very beginning, the mission behind making a film was to draw attention to the fact that these communities of Black cowboys were being pushed out through gentrification," Staub tells Mental Floss of the impetus behind Concrete Cowboy. "One of the ways we’re trying to combat this is with the help of Cozen O'Connor, a law firm in Philly, and their pro bono work. They helped us set up a nonprofit called the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy so that we could actually build a space that would last forever."
Already, they've had to tackle a few major challenges. "We've been engaging a lot with the city and didn't get very far with them," Staub says. "Unfortunately, the [horses' grazing] field is already being developed for affordable housing, so there's nowhere for the horses to go. As part of this nonprofit, we actually just launched a GoFundMe to raise $2 million, so we can buy land within the city and build a stable. Because one of the problems is that even if you have a stable, the city ... still owns the land and can kick you off whenever they want. Our hope and our goal is to create a space that can't ever be removed."
Of course, adversity is nothing new to the members of Philadelphia's urban horsemanship community. For more than 100 years, Black cowboys and cowgirls have shown great ingenuity in navigating racism and classism to preserve the traditions that were handed down to them by their ancestors.
Whatever the future holds for Fletcher Street's urban cowboys, the impact of this vibrant counter-cultural movement cannot be erased from the pages of history nor from the transformed lives that have emerged from this close-knit community. As the film's mantra goes, “Home isn't a place, it's fam.”