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East Austin trail riders, facing gentrification, 'aren't going anywhere'

Bronte Wittpenn
Elgin farrier Korey Jones stands with his horse Miss Daisy under the bridge of U.S. 183 during a trail ride Dec. 14, 2019, in East Austin. Jones is a part of a trail riding group called JamDine Boyz out of Elgin. The group has been together for two years and is among several trail riding groups in Elgin and Austin. Jones, who is known for his farrier services, is self-taught and has built a successful business trimming and shoeing horses.

Thirty-one-year-old Malcolm Vincent’s dream came true in a horse lot tucked away off Hudson Street and U.S. 183.

The lot, known as the “hog pen,” is home to Roll’n Da Dice Stables. It houses horses that are bred and trained by Vincent and wife, Kamesha Brooks. It’s also where several East Austin residents rent stalls and board horses.

Vincent grew up in East Austin and has been surrounded by horses his whole life. He said he learned about horses from 74-year-old Horace Williams, his godfather and an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He had Vincent on a horse when he was 3 years old.

“I saw a lot of myself in Malcolm,” Williams said.

Horace Williams, 74, feeds his horses Aug. 19 while at Carson Creek Ranch in Austin. Williams is a Vietnam Army veteran and is a respected elder, mentor and educator in the Black community. He devoted 23 years of his life to the military and now spends much of his time educating the public about the Buffalo Soldiers through a reenactment group, the Company A, 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers.

Wearing a gray bandanna around his neck and a red plaid button-down shirt, Williams stands over 6 feet tall. His name can be seen on the gold-plated belt buckle representing the days when he rode in rodeos. He said his style of clothing is inspired by legendary cowboy William “Bill” Pickett, who is credited with the founding of the rodeo sport “bulldoggin’,” which is known worldwide as steer wrestling.

Pickett was one of thousands of Black cowboys and cowgirls who helped shape history in the West and whose stories have often been left out of the history books.

For generations, these horse riders have called East Austin’s historically Black and brown neighborhoods home. As much of the cultural character of this part of town is pushed out by gentrification, the riders hold onto their community and traditions. Each one tells a different story of why they ride and what statement they hope to make.

Williams devotes his life to teaching Black history. He also is a Purple Heart recipient who devoted 23 years of his life to the military. He eventually became one of the founders of the Company A, 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, a group that presents a living history of the Black Cavalry Troopers in 1866. The group attends Juneteenth parades and rodeos and often makes appearances at schools.

“One-third of the cowboys was Black,” Williams said. “Same thing in the military — back then there was something like 10 cavalry units, and two of those cavalry units were all Black.”

The way Black men were negatively portrayed in movies was another reason Williams was motivated to teach kids about Black history and the Buffalo Soldiers. He said Black men were often portrayed as slaves or criminals. He said he wanted kids to know that Black men were more than that.

The shadow of Dennis Milligan and his horse Sissy can be seen Jan. 3 on the wall of East Austin staple Sam's BBQ on East 12th Street.

When Vincent was a kid, he would take him to the group’s events. He even took him camping for the first time.

As Vincent grew up, he eventually went to college and played basketball. Around that time, he began to get in trouble.

“The streets got me for a little bit,” Vincent said. “After I got in trouble in the streets, I came back to the country life. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do is go where you started from.”

When he turned 25, Vincent started a business breaking and selling horses.

“People say you can’t talk to those animals, but you can,” Vincent said. “When I’m going through a lot, I can just come to this horse lot. They know I’m going through something. They’ll just be standing at the gate.”

Malcolm Vincent and his wife, Kamesha Brooks, stand for a portrait with their horse KJ during a trail ride celebrating Vincent's birthday Dec. 14 in East Austin. The couple run a horse breeding and training business called Roll'n Da Dice Stables in East Austin. They specialize in gaited horses, a favorite among trail riding groups. "When we ride these horses around the city, it's definitely making a statement that people of color are still here and we aren't going anywhere," Kamesha said, criticizing gentrification in much of East Austin.

While Vincent and his wife have been focused on growing their business, they also use it to send a message.

“The east side really isn’t the east side anymore,” Vincent said about gentrification in the area. “There’s a lot of Black businesses out here that people don’t know about, so we are trying to make a statement out here.”

For Brooks, Vincent’s wife, that statement is amplified when she, her husband and other Black cowboys and cowgirls ride through neighborhoods that have historically been home to Black and Latinx residents. While Austin’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the nation, so are its patterns of gentrification and displacement of Black and Latinx communities. That loss of community and cultural character to enclaves of largely white and wealthier residents concerns Brooks most about Austin’s growth and development.

According to the latest information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, from 2010 to 2018, the number of Black residents in Austin grew 29%, from 63,504 to 82,148. The 2019 numbers from the survey show a sudden decrease of nearly 5,700 Black residents, making the total fall behind the population of Asian Americans for the first time.

“When we ride these horses around in the city, it’s definitely making a statement that people of color are still here and we aren’t going anywhere,” Brooks said.

Charles Milligan crosses Airport Boulevard while on his horse Oct. 7, 2019, during a trail ride through East Austin.

Brooks also rides to challenge how people see Black women. She said she believes America perceives Black women as angry or uneducated.

“Women carry a lot of strength, especially Black women, because of how we are stereotyped,” she said. Brooks also works as an operating room nurse at Dell Seton Medical Center and has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaniqwa Huricks leans against a horse trailer before a trail ride in East Austin on Dec. 14, 2019.

“When someone sees me on a horse, especially someone of another race, I know they can see the strength, the power, all of that,” she said.

A second chance

Dennis Milligan was 7 years old when he first saw horse riders trot through his neighborhood in East Austin.

They were different from most horse riders he saw on television shows like “Gunsmoke” or Western films featuring Clint Eastwood. They looked just like him. Dressed in shorts, sneakers and T-shirts, the riders cruised through the Booker T. Washington Terrace apartments where he grew up. They stopped and let the kids pet the horses; some would even boost them in the saddle and lead them around.

“I was so excited to get close, to get around that scene,” said Milligan, known to friends and family as “Baybay.”

For Milligan, now 53, seeing horses where he grew up was rare but made a lasting impact. He describes his neighborhood as one of the roughest areas of Austin back then.

“It was a lot of doing without,” Milligan said. “Only the strong survive.”

Dennis Milligan, 53, rests his boots on the door of his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado while at Givens Park in East Austin on Jan. 24. Milligan was born and raised in Austin and is a part of the city's local trail riding group Rich Gang Riderz. Growing up, Milligan would watch horse riders trot through his neighborhood in East Austin. "I was so excited to get close," Milligan said. "To get around that scene."

Milligan said he was fortunate to grow up with both parents. Many kids he grew up with only had one. His parents, Dennis and Sadie, grew up in the country.

On the weekends, they took him out to Taylor to visit his grandparents. There, he dug in gardens and fed chickens and pigs.

“It’s always been in me,” he said about the country lifestyle. “I loved it.”

He eventually started a pig farm with his younger brother, Gerald, near U.S. 183 in the 1980s. The area is locally known as “the hill” or the “hog pen” and has served as a gathering place for Austin trail rides over the years.

Riding horses didn’t come into Milligan’s life until adulthood, after Gerald died from heart failure in 2016. He was 44 years old.

That year, Milligan purchased a black and white Tennessee Walker named Sissy. He bought her to honor his brother and their shared love of horses.

Dennis Miligan and Michael Fagan ride their horses Sissy and Cocoa in front of a convenience store located on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Jan. 3.

“After he was gone, I know he is looking down and saying, ‘We finally got a horse,’” Milligan said.

During that time, Milligan started hearing about trail rides. He saw people from his childhood riding their own horses through East Austin and in the Juneteenth parades, like the ones he’d seen growing up.

The riders wore brightly colored T-shirts representing different trail riding groups. Yellow for the Carson Trail Riders, blue for Texas Finest and green for Rich Gang Riderz, just a few of the groups in Central Texas. Jeffrey Sodie Sr., one of his childhood friends, was among these riders. He encouraged Milligan to join the trail riding scene. So he joined Austin’s local trail riding group called Rich Gang Ridez.

A patch with the logo of Austin trail riding group Rich Gang Riderz can be seen on the saddle of Dennis Milligan in East Austin on Dec. 14.

“Sodie was one of the first guys that said, ‘You could do that,’” Milligan said.

The two men have now known each other for nearly 35 years. They grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same high school dances. They’ve seen each other at their best and worst. When they were younger, Milligan said he and Sodie were in jail at the same time. Milligan was 21.

While in jail, Milligan said his friendship with Sodie grew stronger. It’s a bond the men carry with them into their 50s. Now, when the men see each other in places like Givens Park, it’s different.

“As we got older now, the conversation we have is about our animals and about making our animals better,” Milligan said. “Instead of talking negative, it’s nothing but positive.”

Passing the torch

Sodie wrestled with addiction for over a decade. He was in and out of jail. When he wasn’t using drugs, he was selling them. He said it was a way of life that resulted in him losing everything.

“I never stayed on the street free for more than a year,” Sodie said.

Sodie learned how to deal with trauma when he owned his first horse in 2000.

“For me, that first horse unlocked the hold that the streets had on me,” Sodie said of his first horse, Go Boy. “I spent a lot of time with that horse, riding every day. The more I spent with the horse, the less time I spent in the streets.”

Jeffrey Sodie Sr. rests his head against his horse Diva at his uncle's property called the Carson Ranch in Creedmoor on Feb. 7. Sodie struggled with addiction for over a decade before he found solace and sobriety through horseback riding. "It's my comfort place. I's where nothing else matters," Sodie said about spending time with Diva.

Now, Sodie celebrates over 20 years of sobriety.

He owns a bay mare named Diva. Her face is almost all white from the massive blaze that trails down from her hairline to her nose. When she was born, Sodie was the second person to touch her.

“It’s my comfort place,” Sodie said about spending time with Diva. “It’s where nothing else matters.”

The trail riding scene in Austin and other areas of Central Texas has welcomed hundreds of participants. It usually starts with a trail riding group hosting a ride for a cause. Trail rides are often held to raise money for a family who lost a loved one or for celebrations like birthdays, family reunions and weddings. Sodie’s riding group, the Carson Trail Riders, is known for its trail ride in the spring that lasts several days in Creedmoor.

Dennis Milligan and Michael Fagan wash their horses Sissy and Cocoa at the Carwash at MLK in East Austin before participating in a Black Lives Matter march on June 7.

Trail riding groups generally come from all over the state and can compete in competitions during the event. Some competitions reward trail riding groups for best-dressed horses or most members on horseback with matching uniforms.

In recent years, the trail rides have slimmed down. Elders have passed away, taking traditions with them. Families have moved. Young people have turned away from trail rides and the equine world altogether. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has gripped much of the state, the trail riding scene has been affected yet again.

That’s why when Sodie rides, he introduces his horse to young kids and allows them to sit in the saddle.

“You’re planting seeds, that’s what you’re doing,” Sodie said. “This is a way of life, and it has to be taught to them; if that torch doesn't get passed, that dies.”

Davante Garner charges his horse toward the finish line during a horse race at Turn Out the Lights Stables in East Austin on June 6. The horse races are hosted by several community members in East Austin, including residents from Elgin. The races attract trail riding groups and racers from around Central Texas and from cities like Dallas and Houston.

What makes Sodie most proud is seeing his friends turn into country boys. Especially those who’ve shared the same hardships faced in his younger years.

“We used to buy rims and cars,” Sodie said. “Now we are buying horses, trucks and trailers. We are buying land, we are doing different things, we are not that same person; that’s how you know that there’s growth there.”

It’s part of our culture’

In past years, Austin’s Juneteenth parade has welcomed thousands of people. It’s also a time when many trail riding groups come out to ride in the parade. This year, numbers were significantly down because of the pandemic. Yet, a few hundred people gathered to celebrate. Families sat on tailgates, lawn chairs and blankets. Some brought grills and filled the air with the smell of barbecue. One family boiled crab legs and made gumbo.

Several masks and T-shirts read “Black Lives Matter” or “I Can’t Breathe” and displayed the name of George Floyd, as nationwide protests continued to decry police brutality against communities of color.

While there wasn’t a traditional parade, several people rode in classic, low-riding vehicles down Rosewood Avenue. Some rode their motorcycles and dirt bikes.

Meanwhile, over a dozen horse riders gathered in the north parking lot of Givens Park.

Oscar Simms rides alongside Dennis Milligan with several other riders on Rosewood Avenue as they make their way to a Juneteenth celebration at Rosewood Park on June 19.

As they made their way down Rosewood Avenue to join the celebration, people cheered. Vincent and Milligan were among the horse riders that day. Dressed in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, Milligan was quick to hand the reins over to a little boy and teach him how to lead Sissy around the field.

“The God-honest truth is, when I got into these trail rides ... it made me a way better person,” Milligan said.

Milligan described becoming the horse rider he used to see in childhood as a blessing.

“It’s amazing, knowing that I’m fulfilling some young kid’s dream just like mine,” Milligan said. “I’m blessed to be that person to ride, to be still sound after all these years physically and mentally.”

Jai Lewis, 3, attempts to put a bridle on a horse while in the back of a pickup truck on Jan. 24 in Elgin. "This is a way of life," Jeffrey Sodie Sr. said about taking care of horses and the trail riding scene. "It's important that we pass the torch to the generations coming up after us; if that torch doesn't get passed, that dies."

Left and right, horse riders were handing over the reins to young kids and teenagers, teaching them how to safely walk around a horse and lead them around.

Brooks sat on a four-wheeler taking in the scene.

When asked about the future of trail rides, Brooks said she hopes the city will show support by providing horse trails like they do bike lanes and dog parks.

When asked about the future of Roll’n Da Dice Stables, she said that recently she and her husband’s offer to purchase 14 acres of land near Little Piney Creek south of Bastrop was accepted. On that land, Brooks hopes to one day provide equine therapy to her community and give kids an experience that will connect them to their history.

“It’s a part of our culture,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t know that because it’s not taught in your schools, and it’s a big part of Black history, which is a huge part of American history.”