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Cowgirl loves to break the mold

Lyndell Johnson's childhood dreams of becoming a cowgirl were born in front of the television screen, watching such shows as "Roy Rogers," "Bonanza" and "Mr. Ed."

But there were not too many people with her skin tone on those programs. As a result of the consistent whitewashing prevalent in Hollywood westerns, she says far too many Americans remain unaware of the role that blacks played in taming the Wild West. "I always say those John Wayne movies did a disservice. They did not tell the truth, the whole truth," Johnson explained. "We weren't just slaves picking cotton."

Today, the 51-year-old Yosemite High math and science teacher isn't just spreading the word about how blacks played a major role on the western frontier. Riding atop her horse Astro, wearing her charcoal cowboy hat, cowboy boots and two single-action Colt .45 pistols, there's no doubt Johnson personifies a modern-day cowgirl.

"I am the real deal!" she exclaims.

Looking the part does not mean she's afraid of getting dust on her boots. Over the years Johnson has participated in several rodeo competitions around the country, including the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Johnson has won top prizes in competitions -- cowboy mounted shooting, for example, where the goal is to shoot a target while riding on a horse at 30 mph. She has also won prizes in barrel racing, a competition where a rider maneuvers a horse in a pattern around metal barrels.

As a woman unafraid to castrate a bull or brand a steer, Johnson is a country girl at heart -- although she didn't start out that way. She grew up in Norfolk, Va., and by age 4 she began to crawl around on the floor and "neigh like a horse," she recalled. Later on, she began asking her mother for a horse -- a gift that was never seriously considered.

Fifteen years ago, however, Johnson bought her first horse -- an event that made her heart "jump and skip a beat." Now she lives on her own ranch in Merced with horses Doc and Astro, several steers and heads of cattle. "It's in my blood somewhere," Johnson describes. "It's just a gift from God."

Johnson is eager to talk about the history of black cowboys and cowgirls -- a discussion that she doesn't reserve just for Black History Month. After the Civil War, Johnson said blacks were a common sight on the western frontier. After slavery ended, many blacks came out west seeking opportunities. Many became cowboys. "Once the plantations shut down, if you were able-bodied, that's where you went," Johnson said.

She also mentioned the example of the buffalo soldiers, all-black regiments that often battled with American Indian warriors and fought several battles during the late 19th century.

Not all the buffalo soldiers were men. Johnson says one of her inspirations is Cathy Williams. A former slave, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted as a buffalo soldier. "In the process, Cathy was able to accomplish what few other women, black or white, could even imagine at the time," wrote author Phillip Thomas Tucker in his book "Cathy Williams: From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier."

Even though women like Williams paved the way for today's black cowgirls, Johnson said people everywhere -- including Merced -- take a second look when they see her riding a horse. Johnson said she was once approached by a child, who said she didn't know "black people rode horses."

Regardless, Johnson said doesn't mind when people ask questions, and she's happy to break the mold. "They are very surprised and very stunned. Females especially," Johnson said. "It does feel good to show a positive image and the things that we contributed to this great country, as far as building it. Not just the hard labor as slaves, but other things that we did."

Johnson also shares her love of horses and animals with her students. She moved to Virginia to Merced three years ago -- a trip she believes was divinely inspired. Her daughter, 21-year-old Jewel Inez-Marie McNair, is also a cowgirl, and learned how to ride a horse at age 6.

On several occasions, Johnson has brought her horses to school, in addition to her wolf dog Ghost and schnauzer Killer. "(God) sent me to these children in Merced. I just know I touch their lives," Johnson said. "My students are my first love, and my horses are my second love."

Mallely Gonzalez, 19, one of Johnson's students, said she's inspired by her cowgirl example -- and she's considering becoming a cowgirl herself. "I think it's great. She really does like horses, and I like them too," Gonzalez said.

Despite the false Hollywood stereotypes, Johnson said she hopes that as more women saddle up, people will begin to develop a more diverse view about cowgirls and cowboys. "This is me. I wouldn't change it for anything else," Johnson said.

After all, she's the real deal.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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