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The Black Cowboys of the Wild West

When you generally consider a cowboy the image that comes to mind is that of a rugged white bloke with a stubble in dirt stained blue jeans and with a cowboy hat to kill. This generally is the Western movie perception of the cowboy, at least that’s what we’ve been exposed to.

According to history many cowboys were actually black, in-fact as many as one in four were black, however, history has completely eradicated the black cowboys. Ironically, only a handful of movies have featured black cowboys, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” and some black cowboys, notably Bill Pickett in the 1900s, became popular rodeo stars and that’s pretty much it when it comes to the Western movie cinema.

Photographer Rory Doyle has immersed himself in the cowboy culture of the Mississippi

“History shows us that in the late 1860s blacks made up about 20 percent of the US population, which coincides with the whole frontier movement. In fact, many newly emancipated blacks did move west in search of new opportunities in a post-antebellum America,” wrote Dr Artel Great, a historian of black cinema and film studies professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “Many of them were skilled ranch-hands with vast experience in agricultural labour — a requirement for surviving life as a cowboy.”

However, Hollywood has mostly offered a whitewashed narrative. As Great explained, the western film is a classic in American culture, so the erasure of black cowboys from pop culture is linked to “the tension between who can and cannot participate in the fruits of the American dream.”

The Cowboy of the Mississippi Delta

Photographer Rory Doyle’s ongoing project “Delta Hill Riders” aims to tell a more realistic and diverse story about black cowboys today by focusing on African-American cowboys and cowgirls in the Mississippi Delta, a flat farming region in the deep South between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Doyle captured a group of riders in front of a McDonald’s.

The images, all shot in the Mississippi Delta – where a community of black cowboys reside today has managed to win several awards, including the recent 16th Annual Smithsonian Photo Contest.

Through his research, Doyle found little historical photographic documentation of black cowboys in the United States. According to him, it is a part of history that has been overlooked. “(Members of the black cowboy community) will tell you, ‘This is what we’ve always done. My dad did it. This is how I identify.'”

Doyle first came across black cowboys when he moved to Cleveland, Mississippi, in 2009 and his first experience was when he saw them riding in the city’s Christmas parade in 2016. “My first thought was, ‘There’s a lot more diversity in cowboy culture than I realized, and there’s a story here,'” he said.

Doyle’s collection of photos were all shot in the Mississippi Delta

With time Doyle embraced the cowboy culture and while doing so he started taking pictures of the riders. The welcoming riders invited Doyle to photograph them while grooming their horses and accompanying them on their trails. The cowboys were so fond of Doyle that they made him an honorary member of the group after which his photo series is named, the Delta Hill Riders.

Doyle has photographed the cowboys and cowgirls in a variety of settings, including at social gatherings at a rural nightclub. While his intimate photos offer hints of what many would expect to see — denim, cowboy hats and horses — the fly-on-the-wall-images also tell a different story. One photo shows a group of boys hanging around outside a McDonald’s, while another features a bare thigh, revealing a large tattoo.

Doyle has won several awards including the recent 16th Annual Smithsonian Photo Contest.

The Legacy Continues

Doyle’s photos have been displayed in various cities throughout England and America but his favourite up to date was the show at home in Cleveland. The opening night drew a large crowd, including many of the riders in his photos.

“It was packed, and really diverse, which is not always the case in the Delta,” Doyle said. “And it gave the cowboys a platform to speak, to share their voice.”

Through his research, Doyle said in a phone interview, he found little historical photographic documentation of black cowboys in the United States.

One of Doyle’s subjects, Peggy Smith, an African- American cowgirl said she knows of no famous riders who look like her and her friends, which is one reason she’s happy to be featured in Doyle’s photos with her horse, Jake.

“My father used a horse to work his farm, and he taught his children to ride — I’ve been riding since I was 12 years old,” she said over the phone. According to Smith, being a cowboy or cowgirl is more of a hobby these days, centred on rodeos, parades and trail rides in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee. “It’s funny. When we go somewhere, people are always just talking about the cowboys,” Smith said. “And I say, ‘Wait a minute, the cowboys ain’t the only ones doing their thing.'”

In the 19th century, many cowboys on the American frontier were black — as many as one in four, by some estimates.

Lawrence Robinson, a local who goes by “Cowboy,” is, at 65-years-old, one of the last working cowboys in the hills near the town of Bolton, Mississippi. “I started riding my father’s horse when I was about 15 years old,” he said in a phone interview.

Three years later, in 1972, he got a job as a cowboy on the Bolton area farm where he still works.

Only a handful of movies have featured black cowboys in the Wild West.

Robinson is proud of his cowboy status. “Most of them now is imitation cowboys. I’m a real one. My daddy had horses and mules back in the day, for farming, and I’d ride them. They couldn’t get me off. When I was about 17, I bought myself a Shetland pony and the first thing I caught was a goat.”

Robinson says he’s pleased to see people still riding horses. He also enjoys sharing riding skills.

“I’m trying to get some young boys stirred up,” he said. “All I can say is, they’re still out there, trying to do their thing on a horse.”


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