The image of a typical American cowboy – a rough white man in blue jeans, a cowboy hat and boots – is an integral part of Western films and modern country music. But as the icons go, it gives an incomplete picture.
Photographer Rory Doyle immersed himself in the cowboy culture of Mississippi. Credit: Rory Doyle
“History shows us that in the late 1860s, blacks made up about 20 percent of the American population, which coincides with the entire border movement. In fact, many newly conquered blacks moved west in search of new opportunities in post-Antebelum America,” he said. , wrote Dr. Artel Great, a historian of black cinema and professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “Many of them were qualified ranchers with extensive experience working in agriculture – a condition for surviving as a cowboy.”
Hollywood, however, mostly offered a bleached narrative. As Great explained, Western film is a classic of American culture, so erasing black cowboys from pop culture is associated with “tension between who can and cannot participate in the fruits of the American dream.”
Cowboy culture of the Mississippi Delta
Photographer Rory Doyle’s ongoing project “Delta Hill Riders” aims to tell a more realistic and diverse story of black cowboys today focusing on African American cowboys and cowgirls in the Mississippi Delta, flat farming in the deep south between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg.
Doyle captured a group of riders in front of McDonald’s. Credit: Rory Doyle
The collection of images, taken in the Mississippi Delta – where, according to Doyle, a large concentration of black cowboys and cowgirls live today – has won several awards, including the recent 16th annual Smithsonian Photo Contest.
Through his research, Doyle said in a telephone interview, he found little historical photographic documentation of black cowboys in the United States. It is, he explained, a part of history that has been overlooked. “(Members of the black cowboy community) will tell you, ‘We’ve always done that.’ My father did it. That’s how I identify. “
A native of Maine, Doyle moved to Cleveland, Mississippi in 2009. He first saw black cowboys and cowgirls riding the city’s Christmas procession in 2016. “My first thought was,‘ There’s a lot more diversity in cowboy culture than I realized, and there’s a story there, ’’ he said.
Doyle’s collection of photographs was taken in the Mississippi Delta. Credit: Rory Doyle
Over time, Doyle immersed himself in the culture by talking to riders as they groomed and cared for their horses, visiting them in their homes and accompanying them on the trails and in the fields. He became such a entrenched element that he eventually became an honorary member of the group after which his series of photographs was named, Delta Hill Riders.
Doyle photographed cowboys and cowgirls in a variety of settings, including at gatherings at a country nightclub. While his intimate photographs offer hints of what many would expect to see – denim, cowboy hats and horses – the images of flying on the wall also tell a different story. One photo shows a group of boys hanging out in front of a McDonalds, while the other features a bare thigh, revealing a large tattoo.
Doyle has won several awards, including the recent 16th annual Smithsonian Photo Contest. Credit: Rory Doyle
Passing on to the inheritance
Doyle showed his photographs in New York and London, but his favorite exhibition was at home in Cleveland. The introductory nights attracted a large crowd, including many riders in his photos.
“It was crowded and really diverse, which isn’t always the case in Delta,” Doyle said. “And the cowboys gave the platform to talk, share their voice.”
Through his research, Doyle said in a telephone interview, he found little historical photographic documentation of black cowboys in the United States. Credit: Rory Doyle
Peggy Smith, an African-American cowgirl who appears in many of Doyle’s photos, said she doesn’t know famous riders who look like her and her friends, which is one of the reasons she’s happy to appear in Doyle’s photos alongside her horse, Jake.
At age 53, she recalled learning ropes in her early childhood. “My father used a horse to work on his farm. He taught his children to ride – I have been riding since I was 12,” she said over the phone. According to Smith, being a cowboy or cowgirl today is more of a hobby, focusing on rodeos, parades and trails in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee. “It’s funny. When we go somewhere, people always just talk about cowboys,” Smith said. “And I say,‘ Wait a minute, cowboys aren’t the only ones doing their stuff. ”
In the 19th century, many cowboys on the American border were black – even one in four, according to some estimates. Credit: Rory Doyle
Lawrence Robinson, who goes next to “Cowboys,” is 65, one of the last working cowboys in the hills near the small town of Bolton, Mississippi. “I started riding my father’s horse when I was about 15,” he said in a phone interview.
Three years later, in 1972, he got a cowboy job on a farm in the Bolton area, where he still works today.
Only a handful of films featured black cowboys in the Wild West. Credit: Rory Doyle
Robinson is proud of his cowboy status. “Most of them imitate cowboys now. I’m real. My father had horses and mules during the day, for farming, and I would ride them. They couldn’t get rid of me. When I was about 17, I bought myself a Shetland pony and the first thing I did he caught a goat. ”
Robinson, who still rides cattle on horseback, said he was glad to see people riding horses, even if it was for recreation rather than business. He also enjoys sharing his riding skills.
“I’m trying to excite some young guys,” he said. “All I can say is that they’re still out there trying to do their thing on horseback.”