Looking Back at the Inaugural Juneteenth Rodeo

The 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo, held June 17, 2023, was the first of its kind in Portland, Ore. The event drew a sold-out crowd of over 2,500 and offered a wholly unique experience.

Ivan McClellan is an acclaimed photojournalist based in Portland. He’s worked in the Western world for eight years, documenting the stories of Black cowboys around the country. He shares their stories and photos on his Instagram account, @eightsecs, and published a book called Eight Seconds: Black Cowboys in America in 2022.

A cowboy leans on his horse
McClellan’s goal was to create a unique and memorable experience for all. Photo by Anthony Jordan for 8 Seconds

McClellan’s friend Vince Jones-Dixon suggested inviting some of his photo subjects to Portland to celebrate Juneteenth. McClellan immediately thought to produce a rodeo like the ones he’d seen during the photography project.

“The opportunity to bring a rodeo to Portland, where there’s a small, but really close, Black population who have never seen anything in the Western world, let alone Black cowboys, was really irresistible to me,” McClellan says. “I thought when kids see this, their eyes are going to light up and they’re going to be exposed to a whole new world.”

McClellan’s background is in advertising, including for live events like the Boston Marathon, New York Marathon and Women’s World Cup. But he hadn’t planned an event like this before.

“The goal was to really see if I could do it—it was a big stretch for me,” he says. “I’ve never put on a party, let alone a big event.”

The Juneteenth Rodeo at the Portland Expo Center
Over 2,500 attended the 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo. Photo by Anthony Jordan for 8 Seconds

McClellan chose a venue in the city of Portland—not a suburb—even though it meant additional logistical challenges. The Portland Expo Center had 60,000 square feet of space, but it was an open, concrete floor.

“The hardest part was, ‘How do I get athletes from all these rodeo sports to haul their trailers from Oklahoma to Portland?’” McClellan says. “Because there are very few Black cowboys in Oregon, and there are dozens of other rodeos that they can go to closer to their home. That took a lot of faith on their part, and a lot of hustle on my part.”

To attract competitors from as far away as Florida, McClellan offered big prize money. He rounded up $60,000 added cash, and personally called rodeo contestants.

“When they got on the phone with me and realized it was 8 Seconds, and the people I know and have been working with in the industry for a long time, they were like, ‘OK, we’re excited,’” McClellan says. “Basically everyone that I got on the phone with ended up coming.”

Kamal Miller is a bull rider from Carson, Calif. He follows McClellan on Instagram, and when the photographer posted a flyer about the Juneteenth Rodeo, he jumped at the chance.

“I support Ivan 100 percent,” Miller says. “I love rodeo, I love the culture of it, I love the fans of bull riding, so I thought ‘Why not?’”

Tank Adams celebrating after his bareback ride at the Juneteenth Rodeo
Tank Adams celebrating after his bareback ride at the 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo. Photo by Anthony Jordan for 8 Seconds

McClellan leaned on experts for advice: He spoke with Joel Cowley, CEO of the Calgary Stampede, and the planners of other Black rodeos around the country. He had a clear goal for the event—to make it a memorable experience.

“I am an artist, and I thought of it as an interactive art project,” McClellan says. “How do I bring people into a space and make them feel something? How do I make them excited about something they don’t know anything about?”

The rodeo sold out six days before the event. McClellan knew his audience and wanted to create a welcoming environment for newcomers.

“I wanted to create a place that was super easy for anybody to come into and have a good time,” McClellan says. “We were getting hundreds of calls a day begging for tickets. A thousand people showed up at the ticket office to get tickets the day of. We probably could have sold twice as many tickets as we did.”

Barrel racing
London Gladney was one of the barrel racers at the event. Photo by Anthony Jordan for 8 Seconds

After the doors opened, attendees visited vendors and the rodeo’s sponsor Tecovas, as well as listened to live music and panel discussions. Host Lindsey Murphy answered questions during the rodeo, helping inform guests and give context in a fun way.

“There was a mechanical bull,” McClellan says. “There was a cowboy named Warren Edney who taught roping lessons to folks who had never touched a rope, and they ended up catching a steer dummy by the end of it.”

Barbecue, food carts, shaved ice and other treats added to the fun. The arena hall was packed by 5:30 p.m.—even though the rodeo didn’t start till 7. A DJ played music throughout the event.

“Even if you weren’t feeling the rodeo sports, you could vibe through the music, have a good time and dance,” McClellan says. “And we had beautiful lighting. The best sound system that we could get. All of this was intentional to create more of a party-type atmosphere. It felt really different than other rodeos I’ve been to.”

Events included bull riding, bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and mutton busting. A sport called Steer Undecorating rounded out the events.

“It’s where ladies pull a piece of tape off the back of a steer—it’s the ladies’ equivalent to steer wrestling,” McClellan says.

Miller says the atmosphere was welcoming and the energy was high.

“It was very different from any other rodeo I’ve been to, in a good way,” Miller says. “It gave an opportunity for the riders to engage with the fans, and talk with the kids and families. It was a very cool experience.”

“I think we definitely pulled off my goals for the experience,” McClellan says. “The crowd was so hype, and so appreciative of this event in their city. During the bull riding, they were just thrilled in a way they couldn’t even control; that joy was leaping out of their bodies. It was so loud in there, I couldn’t hear a thing, and it was just phenomenal energy.”

McClellan also wanted to inspire young people to get involved in cowboy culture.

“There’s fewer Black cowboys every day,” McClellan says. “There are fewer cowboys period, every day. They’re aging, and the population is shrinking. I thought it weas important to contribute to getting people involved, and getting people inspired by these cowboys.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees and competitors, McClellan plans to put on more events in the future, but promises they’ll be unique—and have a larger crowd capacity.

“I don’t want to do the same thing, I want to do something exciting, and I want to push it forward,” he says.

Sign up for info on future events at 8secondsrodeo.com.

This article about the Juneteenth Rodeo appeared in the August 2023 issue of Western Life Today magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Abigail Boatwright

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