Verna Lee Hightower, rodeo competitor, the first African American to become an official member of the Girl’s Rodeo Association, and civil rights activist, was born on June 26, 1930, in Spring, Texas, near Houston, to Arthur Booker and Alvirita (Wells) Booker. At an early age, Verna developed a love for the outdoors and horses, so much so that she earned a nickname of “Boots.” After Verna’s parents divorced, her mother moved the family to Houston.
When Verna Lee Booker married Ted Hightower (date unknown), she began to train and ride more regularly. She devoted most of her time to and excelled at barrel racing. In 1949 the Hightowers purchased their first home which was located near the Diamond L Ranch, a rodeo arena on South Main in Houston. The arena, built by black cowboy J. L. Sweeney, served as a venue where African-American cowboys and cowgirls came to compete. Verna Hightower gained early exposure and success in competitions at the Diamond L Ranch rodeos. She competed on the national level on the black rodeo circuit in Okmulgee and Henrietta, Oklahoma, and Simonton and Pasadena, Texas, where she was very successful. Soon she became the “poster girl” for area rodeos.
Aside from rodeo, the Hightowers were the parents of six children—Lewis, Alvirita, Gilbert, Gerald, Christine, and Dee Dee—all of whom were involved in the family business of rodeo. They were taught a “healthy respect for riding and ranch animals.” Dee Dee, one of the younger daughters, died at an early age. Verna’s family was well-known as the first African-American family listed as “trainers” and “owners” of livestock presented at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In 1969 Hightower became the first African-American woman to take part in the barrel racing competition in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. She was also a member of the National Colored Rodeo Association and the Southwest Rodeo Association, Inc., as well as the Girl’s Rodeo Association (now the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association).
Verna and her family were members of St. Stephens Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. She was an accomplished pianist, as well as an advocate for civil rights. In 1963 Verna and Ted Hightower filed a successful lawsuit against the Houston Independent School District to allow their children to attend the white schools that were closer to their home instead of the black schools across town. Verna also worked as a medical assistant at the Lyons Medical Clinic in the Fifth Ward in Houston.
Verna Lee Booker Hightower died on August 27, 1970, in Harris County. In 2007 she was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.