A recent article in Smithsonian estimated that just after the Civil War, one in four cowboys were African American. Yet this population was drastically underrepresented in popular accounts like film and books. And it is still. But the cowboy identity retains a strong presence in many contemporary black communities.
Delta Hill Riders, an ongoing documentary project in the rural Mississippi Delta, sheds light on an overlooked black subculture—one that resists both historical and contemporary stereotypes. The project began in January 2017, when I attended a black-heritage rodeo in Greenville, Mississippi. I’ve been invited to black-heritage rodeos, horse shows, trail rides, Cowboy Night at black nightclubs, and subjects’ homes across the Delta. I’ve been welcomed in a way I could not have imagined.
It’s a story that’s particularly timely with the current political environment, and one that provides a renewed focus on rural America. These riders show a love for their horses and fellow cowboys, while also passing down traditions and historical perspectives among generations. Ultimately, the project aims to press against my own old archetypes—who could and could not be a cowboy, and what it means to be black in Mississippi—while uplifting the voices of my subjects.
Photo: Gee McGee rears his horse after a rare snowfall in Bolivar County, Mississippi.