Inducted in 2009
Charles Sampson’s bullriding career earned him one million dollars, a world championship, and a score of circuit and local championship buckles; it also brought him two broken legs wired together by screws, pins, and metal plates, a lacerated ear and cracked skull, and a broken wrist, ankle, and sternum. Reflecting on those injuries, Sampson stated, “People ask me how I survived those wrecks, and I tell them I don’t have a clue. They ask me why I keep riding after I get hurt. I was on my deathbed, and I walked away. I guess God didn’t want me to quit.”
Charles Sampson ranks among the top bull riders in the long history of the Ellensburg Rodeo. Sampson won Ellensburg bullriding championship buckles in 1981 and 1984, and he appears on the cover of John Ludtka’s The Tradition Lives On: A Seventy-five Year History of the Ellensburg Rodeo.
Born in 1957 in the Watts ghetto of south-central Los Angeles, Sampson followed an unlikely path to rodeo superstardom. Unlike ranch-raised cowboys, 10 year-old Charlie’s first horseback ride was at a carnival pony concession. When his mother and father (a professional house painter) moved Charlie and his twelve brothers and sisters out of Watts, young Sampson found work at a Gardenia, CA livery stable.
There, local black cowboys dubbed Charlie “Pee Wee,” took him under their wings and taught him to rope and ride roughstock. He rode his first bull at 12. He met, and was mentored by, Hall of Fame bull rider Myrtis Dightman, who told him “You look pretty good, but I would stay in school and get an education.”
Sampson stayed in school and aimed for a career in rodeo. He won his first championship buckle at age 17, attended Central Arizona College on a rodeo scholarship, and joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in 1977.
During a sixteen-year career, the 5’ 3”, 134-pound cowboy won bullriding championships at some of America’s most storied rodeos—Salinas, Calgary, Pendleton, Del Rio, the Cow Palace (San Francisco), and Ellensburg. Sampson won four circuit finals championships and qualified for the National Finals Rodeo ten times. In 1983, he edged out the legendary Donny Gay to become the World Champion Bull Rider.
One of the most accomplished and famous professional bull riders of the late 20th century, Charles Sampson was also the first African American to win a PRCA world championship. “Some people don’t realize that something like a quarter of all cowboys back in the Old West were black,” Sampson states. Forty years before Jackie Robinson desegregated professional baseball, African American cowboys competed in the rodeo arena alongside white, Hispanic, Indian, and female competitors. Yet, in 1977, he was one of six black cowboys in the PRCA.
As his fame spread, many news reporters asked Sampson to discuss his struggles as a black athlete, but Sampson resisted: “Hell, I’m no Ghetto child, I’m a cowboy.” Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald B. Taylor concurred, stating, “It is obvious Sampson no longer thinks of himself as a black trying to enter an all-white world, but as a cowboy among cowboys.”
In the early 1990s, as his career began to slow, Charlie Sampson helped form the televised, independent bull riding circuit that became the Professional Bull Riders Association (PBR). He also continued his community service, using his rodeo stardom as means to reach out to disadvantaged youth. He worked with the YMCA and did motivational speaking. In 2005, he joined the staff at Berkshire Farm. Located in rural Canaan, New York, the farm is devoted to assisting troubled youth and their families.
Sampson has strong Ellensburg connections. Dr. Dan Hiersche, an Ellensburg orthopedic surgeon and friend, mended several of Charles’ fractures and broken bones. Another longtime Ellensburg Rodeo Board Member Joel Smith recalls, “Charles Sampson became a huge fan favorite with the Ellensburg rodeo crowd, winning the bullriding outright in ’82 and a tie in ’81. In 1994, the rodeo board honored Charles and his family as Parade Grand Marshal and dedicated the Sunday performance to him. He has been back to Ellensburg several times since retiring from competition as a motivational speaker. Charles is one of the great guys, and has given back much to the sport of rodeo and his fans.”