Enduring Traditions

Cowboy Culture in the Mississippi Delta

 

At the 2016 Christmas parade in Cleveland, Mississippi, I had an epiphany of sorts. Finishing up the end of the parade was a small group of African American cowboys. Their presence instantly struck me. My entire life, I had failed to consider the diverse history of cowboy culture. My imagination had never challenged the mainstream portrayal of white cowboys.

In a move that would make my college journalism professors proud, I jumped into the parade and walked alongside the riders, asking if I could visit with them. I wanted to see where they kept their horses and where they rode. I wanted a chance to know them and share their stories.

The decision to enter the parade sparked a series of introductions, and not long after, I was connected with hundreds of Mississippi Delta cowboys and cowgirls. It was baffling, really, having lived here since 2009, and I had neglected to realize their existence. My job as a photojournalist is to seek meaningful stories, and I had been blind to a story that was right in front of me.

And that story has been an underreported part of American history for more than 150 years. 

There’s no doubt that the term cowboy means different things to people around the world. In America, we have a fairly distinct archetype of a cowboy — an image that includes hats, chaps, boots and trusty mustangs set in the backdrop of the Wild West. We often romanticize this image through people like John Wayne, a man who was depicted as strong, macho and heroic. But the reality is, there have been black cowboys riding alongside white cowboys dating back to the Civil War.

For the sake of this article, I use the term cowboy loosely, referring to anyone who owns horses, rides horses or is directly affiliated with those who do. Delta cowboys aren’t necessarily doing ranch work like you’d find in Texas, but more often than not, these folks wear the same Western style hats and boots made famous in Hollywood films. 

In the Delta, one cowboy of note is Holt Collier, who was an African American Confederate scout, sportsman and bear hunter. Collier was born a slave in Mississippi. Legend has it that it was he who paved the way for President Teddy Roosevelt’s nickname “Teddy Bear” while leading a Mississippi hunt in 1902.

But perhaps the most iconic black cowboys were the Buffalo Soldiers, the first African American army units who were unsung heroes made famous by Bob Marley’s song. The Buffalo Soldiers, who were designated in 1866, changed the U.S. military forever. For the first time, black soldiers became a permanent component of the military.

Following the Civil War, working as a cowboy as the Western frontier was settled was one of the better opportunities for African Americans. William Loren Katz is a scholar of African American history and has written more than 40 books on the topic, including “The Black West.” 

“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” Katz said in a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine. That led to about one in four cowboys being black during that era — yet it remains a part of history that is largely overlooked.

In April of 2018, I was sent on assignment to photograph the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Memphis. The traveling rodeo, named after Pickett, celebrates the heritage of African American cowboys and cowgirls. Pickett became a global cowboy figure in the early 1900s after showing the world that non-Caucasians could succeed on the rodeo circuit. His impact has now touched generations of black riders. In 1971, he was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, becoming the first black rodeo athlete to receive the honor.

In Memphis, I spoke with Carolyn Carter, the rodeo’s general manager who has been with the company since its inception in 1984. On the road, Carter spreads word of the historical significance of black cowboys.

“It’s important we let America know we’re here, and this is what we do,” said Carter. “Our story is not told as much because we’re not writing the history books. But we don’t let that stop us. We do what we always do — continue forward.”

The settling of the West would not have happened without black cowboys,” she added.

“If there were 10 cowboys, I guarantee you seven of them were black. And they got the roughest jobs because they were the bravest. And they got the jobs nobody else wanted. In the end, that made them better trainers, better horsemen, better at settling the West.”

My decision to jump in Cleveland’s Christmas parade has also changed my photography career. Right after the parade, in January 2017, I photographed a black heritage rodeo in Greenville, Mississippi. I was invited to attend by one of the same cowboys I met in the parade. These personal invitations continued to pop up, and before I knew it, I was spending all my personal time documenting black cowboy and cowgirl culture in the Delta.

I’ve narrowed this local culture down into four main categories: trail riding, which is purely social and involves a large group gathering to ride the terrain, and they often include barbeque and music; horse shows, where prize money is on the line and horses are judged by appearance and gait; black heritage rodeos, which include all the classic rodeo elements; and lastly, “cowboy night,” where groups of cowboys and cowgirls congregate at clubs across the region, and the DJs play cowboy-themed songs that keep partiers dancing late into the night.

Kyran Parker, 22, from Renova, Mississippi, is one cowboy who’s received some fame for his dancing. He’s part of a young trio, all friends and local riders, who were given the name Young Guns after they repeatedly showed up at Delta venues to show off their dance moves. 

Parker was introduced to horses by his family members when he was about six years old. He loved it as a kid but didn’t return to riding until a few years back. He was a talented athlete growing up, which took precedence over riding. 

Parker and fellow Young Guns, Jeremy Melvin and Gee McGee, always decked out in their boots and hats, have received a big social media following thanks to their viral videos from nights out dancing. They’ve developed a fan base, enough to the point they occasionally get hired to dance at clubs and cowboy events.

“It’s kind of crazy, but we all got into riding together after we finished high school, and then we started practicing dance moves to the songs we’d hear at the clubs,” said Parker.  “I’ve always loved dancing, and I guess we never really expected to get all the attention. We’ve always been dancing.”

And while the Young Guns are known for their rhythm, they are dedicated to their horses too. They each own their own horse, take care of them daily, and attend as many trail rides and horse shows as they can.

“I love being a cowboy,” added Parker. “Not a lot of people think about black cowboys, but it’s just who we are.”

One roadblock I’ve faced throughout this project is an inability to uncover documentation of Delta cowboy culture through the years. Simply put, there is very little documentation of how this population started and how it has changed through generations. My best information comes from oral history accounts. And all the elder riders I’ve spoken with say in the old days, there were way more cowboys.

“Times have changed, but I think there’s still hope for the younger folks,” said Aubrey Smith, 69, originally of Charleston, Mississippi.

Aubrey is one of the better-known cowboys in the Delta. In fact, his entire family has had a big impact on the younger generation of riders in the region. In the 1940s, his parents, Pete and Girdine Smith, became some of the first successful black farmers to own land in Charleston, which rests just on the edge of the Delta flatlands. 

In the 1970s, Pete purchased farmland outside of town and established Smith Farm, a popular gathering point for black riders because the family would host weekly trail rides and horse shows in the rolling hills of Tallahatchie County.

Thanks to their father, who passed away in 1995, Aubrey and his seven siblings grew up around horses. As he says, “Being a cowboy is in our blood.” But this connection to riding reached far beyond the Smith family. It became a part of Charleston, extended to the Delta, and it’s never gone away.

The Smiths told me that they still get asked all the time when the next trail ride or horse show will take place out at Smith Farm. In many ways, their property is like the nucleus of local cowboy culture. Many of the Delta riders went to their first event at the farm, or their horse has ancestral ties to the land. 

I recently sat down with the Smith’s to talk about their family’s bond with local horse history. I was invited for dinner to meet everyone at mother Girdine’s house on a street in Charleston the Smiths have lived on forever. I asked Girdine if it was special to know that she and her husband were the starting point of a tradition that has gone on for decades.

“It feels real good when you think about it,” she said. “Me and him always felt like a cowboy and cowgirl. A lot of people here still ride, and now my grandchildren ride too.”

While the Smiths, and nearly all Delta riders tell me the population of local cowboys has decreased, there’s also hope for the younger generation. 

“I think it’s making a comeback,” said Sedrick Smith, the youngest of the siblings, and current mayor of Charleston. “My son is 14 — all of his friends — they don’t want four-wheelers and dirt bikes. They want horses. They don’t want to talk about nothing but horses. They’re the ones who are going to carry the culture on.”

I often wonder how much reach Smith Farm is responsible for. How many black cowboys and cowgirls from the Delta and other Mississippi regions have ridden there? How many from other states? 

In July of 2018, I had the honor of being an artist in residence in Zebulon, Georgia to explore the black cowboy culture of another remote Southern community. The residency was through Slow Exposures, an annual festival that celebrates rural Southern photography.

When applying to the residency, I proposed to Slow Exposures that I would try and connect with cowboys in Zebulon and surrounding Pike County. It became a daunting task before arriving, because I had never stepped foot in the area. I didn’t know a soul. But much like my project in the Delta, making one connection in the community led to countless more.

I arrived in Zebulon feeling the pressure of fulfilling my residency expectations. Like all journalists are trained to do, I sought information from the people directly. It all started after meeting a woman working the deli at Zebulon’s only grocery store. I don’t normally go to the grocery store to seek sources — but her charming smile and good sense of humor made her a compelling person to ask.

And sure enough, her nephew was a rider. In a matter of minutes, I was on the phone making plans to meet him and his local friends. And the connections just kept coming. I found myself driving around Pike County, over to Griffin, and finally all the way up to Atlanta and its suburbs. In just a few shorts days, I had met and photographed dozens of cowboys and cowgirls.

The experience was reassuring, and in many ways, my time in Georgia progressed much like the life of my Delta project. An introduction is made, and this person introduces me to another person, and the snowball effect takes form. The common denominator no matter where the project leads me is everyone’s willingness to introduce me to fellow riders.

What’s also become an absolute for me is that there are black cowboys and cowgirls nearly everywhere.

For the most part, if there’s a horse event going on, there will be riders of all backgrounds. While the most famous cowboys are quite often white, and white riders are usually the majority, the subjects I’ve interviewed said that doesn’t derail them.

“We’ve been working with horses and riding for years, and just because most people think by watching TV that cowboy culture is white, it never stopped us,” said Sedrick. “I think we’ve just taken it in stride. You know it’s there, you work your way through, and you work your way around it. It has never stopped us from being cowboys and cowgirls.”

That white majority has caused me to be conscious of my actions since the project kicked off. As a white male, I’ve had to ask myself if it’s right for me to carry out this body of work. That’s an imperative question for all journalists, particularly because there have been countless cases of non-black reporters and photographers documenting black America — and quite often, in an unjust manner.

Sadly, there are so many things in American history that have been whitewashed. The cowboy identity is just one example. I think their stories have extra significance because of how one-sided the cowboy image has been portrayed. These are cowboys and cowgirls who all have meaningful voices. Their stories have not been heard as equally as white riders.

The people in my photos are neighbors I’ve become close with, to a point that our relationships are familial. I am proud to live here and share a non-traditional sense of family. 

Being accepted in this community, being asked to attend events, breaking bread in their homes — these are confirmations for me to continue sharing their stories. In fact, if we all spent more time breaking bread with neighbors who are different from us, we’d probably be a more cohesive nation.

Through it all, I’ve witnessed a universal trait among cowboys and cowgirls — a love and concern for their horses and fellow riders. This tradition is at the foundation of all cowboy life.

Written and Photographed by Rory Doyle