Born Edward J. Brooks, a black man who had faced adversity all his life, he wanted a place where everyone was welcome - from immigrants to city folks who stumbled off the beaten path. An Army Ranger who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, Ed Keeylocko started his own town southwest of Tucson after his cows were rejected at a local auction when it was discovered he was black.
Keeylocko was his own unique brand of rancher who understood the interplay and connection between all living things and bred his cattle accordingly. He was a U of A graduate with a degree in agriculture and was concerned about how the lack of foresight and degradation of the natural world would sustain a growing population. He was a proponent of environmental education, and built a little research library that contained out-of print books about ancient civilizations around the world. (A man after my own heart!) He considered himself to be a steward of the land as well as a cowboy:
Now, here’s the thing that you have to remember about a place like this. You’re the curator for everything that lives, breathes on that range. Anything that moves, yells, swims, hunts. You’re the curator. That means birds, bees, skunks. There are beehives on my range, but when there are no blooms and there’s no flowers blooming, they get hungry.
Nicole Santa Cruz in the Seattle Times, 2010:
"Keeylocko was born in South Carolina in 1931. Abandoned by his mother, he was rescued by a woman who gave him the name Keeylock (he added the O later). He left home at 14 and traveled America as a hobo before serving in the Army for 23 years.
He then attended the University of Arizona, earning degrees in agriculture, because he wanted to breed aggressive, well-armed cattle that could protect themselves on the range. (“Give them back their horns,” he says.) After experiencing discrimination at a cattle auction, he decided to create his ranch.
Keeylocko’s life is as unpredictable as the Wild West. He’s an ordained minister. And he has traveled the country, giving lectures on black cowboys.
“There are people that believe that people like me only play basketball, football, dance or maybe play the banjo,” he said. “What they don’t know is, there were black cowboys long before there were white cowboys.”
His life has made him open to welcoming anyone in his town, regardless of color, or as is the case in southern Arizona, regardless of citizenship. He’s known for chasing the Border Patrol off his property.
“I tell people that Cowtown Keeylocko doesn’t choose who comes here,” he said. “That’s the real West.”
Those he welcomes include illegal immigrants who come for water — from the U.S.-Mexico border, less than 50 miles away.
On a recent afternoon, Keeylocko continued to nurse his tequila at the bar, sweating slightly. Aside from the faint hum of a fan, which didn’t provide much relief, the only sounds were insects chirping. Keeylocko’s eyes became soft...
A person has to go back to the land,” he said. “It creates thought.”
I first learned about this remarkable man from an old episode of Arizona Illustrated and fell in love -- then, as usual, life happened. In 2018, when I heard of his passing I did an extensive web search, gathering articles and photos and watching videos of him and his life, and vowed to do a painting of him. Then the Trump War on Asylum Seekers sucked up national oxygen and my attention turned elsewhere.
Then the triple-header of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George Floyd ripped my life foundations out from under me.
I was raised with a set of values that promoted diversity (albeit as God's Christian soldiers) and I did have racism awareness growing up and plenty of first-hand witness to Arizona's brand of bigotry. But the depth of nation-wide systemic racism revealed itself in new ways to me everywhere. It is inescapable and we white people have no idea how deep it runs, by design, and America's Original Sin is still very much who we are. It's just more sophisticated and socially acceptable now. I felt physically nauseated.
But then I witnessed something incredible: after 400 years of colonial control, a great reckoning seemed to be stirring within many Caucasian Americans as wave after wave emerged from all corners of the country, calling to end the perpetuation of violence and inequality towards black people-- indeed, all people of color on this land we share.
All the while, the covid siren was growing louder. The 45th president plugged his ears. It bounced off MAGA hats and unmasked faces, long guns and battle gear. It fluttered with "patriot" and confederate flags and claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives unabated. Conspiracy theories and racial vitriol flooded social media, stoked by the president-- creating real-life threats and incidents. Violence and victim-blaming was now "Patriotism", and collective survival assistance was now "Radical Left Socialism". It felt like my core was under siege.
So I shut down my social media and joined the real world through the peace of covid sequester in my home. The events of 2020 and the George Floyd murder spurred me to take a cathartic look at my own life experiences of sexism and double-standards and the hypocritical stew I was born and raised in.
Here finally, after months in the making, is my vision of Ed J.B. Keeylocko. I brought out his "swamp" green eyes. Above him is his signature Blue Dog Saloon. I include his pinto horse, Jazz, who seemed to be a good fit for this painting. He was an incredible man and led an incredible life. I am sorry our paths never crossed in this world. For those who had the privilege of knowing him, I hope this portrayal of him comes close to doing him justice.
As old wrangler, this man and painting has a special place in my heart.
I'm happy to donate the digital files of my work to 501(c)3 non-profits for fund-raising and historical/educational/cultural preservation. This includes Mr. Keeylocko's Legacy. Feel free to email me.
A blog of inspirations, interpretations-- things that move me in this place where I'm planted.