'Delta Hill Riders': African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Rory Doyle’s ongoing personal project shares the story of African-American cowboy culture in the rural Mississippi Delta, challenging the Hollywood portrayal of the American cowboy. The work highlights the black cowboys and cowgirls in the Delta as a proud group existing beyond the movie image of the American West.

The project began in early 2017 when Doyle attended a rodeo celebrating black cowboy heritage in the region. Over the past year, he’s documented this band of horse riders in a place not typically known for its cowboys. 

A recent article from Smithsonian magazine estimated that one in four cowboys was African-American following the Civil War, yet this population was drastically underrepresented in popular accounts. “Delta Hill Riders” sheds light on a prominent subculture historically overlooked, even in the Mississippi Delta.

Born in 1983, Maine native Doyle is currently based in Cleveland, Miss., the heart of the Delta. Doyle’s editorial work highlights populations in the region that are often unnoticed or underserved. Along with his series about African-American Delta cowboys, he has documented the growing Latino population in an area most known for its black and white history. Doyle’s publication list includes the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” Getty Images, Vox Media and the Financial Times. He also provides marketing imagery for Delta State University.

Doyle has twice assisted Ron Haviv, photographer and co-founder of VII, while he instructed the documentary photography course for Barefoot Workshops in Clarksdale, Miss.

An exhibition opening and talk for “Delta Hill Riders” by Rory Doyle is on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, at 7 p.m. at the Half King Photography Series in New York City. It will be led by Anna Van Lenten, curator of the Half King Photography Series. The exhibition will run until Aug. 6. A concurrent show at Tikhonova Gallery in Harlem will have an opening reception Sunday, June 17, 2018, from 2 to 5 p.m. with an artist talk at 4 p.m. and runs through July 29, 2018.

Photography by Rory Doyle

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<p>James, a smoking Delta cowboy with a golden grill, poses for a portrait in Bolivar County, Miss., November 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

James, a smoking Delta cowboy with a golden grill, poses for a portrait in Bolivar County, Miss., November 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>A young cowboy named Gee rises on his horse after a rare snowfall in Cleveland, Miss., January 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

A young cowboy named Gee rises on his horse after a rare snowfall in Cleveland, Miss., January 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Big Mike teaches kids to ride horses in rural Humphreys County, Miss., March 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Big Mike teaches kids to ride horses in rural Humphreys County, Miss., March 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Cowboy Frank Simpson poses for a portrait at home in Shelby, Miss., November 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Cowboy Frank Simpson poses for a portrait at home in Shelby, Miss., November 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>A group of young cowboys dance atop their horses outside McDonald’s in Cleveland, Miss., August 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

A group of young cowboys dance atop their horses outside McDonald’s in Cleveland, Miss., August 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Cowboy Aubrey looks out at the dancefloor at The All New Sugar Shack in Choctaw, Miss., August 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Cowboy Aubrey looks out at the dancefloor at The All New Sugar Shack in Choctaw, Miss., August 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Joe “Dancing Cowboy” Wrenn and his wife Barbara dance on “Cowboy Night” at Club Black Castle in Ruleville, Miss., February 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Joe “Dancing Cowboy” Wrenn and his wife Barbara dance on “Cowboy Night” at Club Black Castle in Ruleville, Miss., February 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Grandson Javaris and grandfather Rogers pose for a portrait after riding their horses in the Christmas parade in Cleveland, Miss., Decemeber 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Grandson Javaris and grandfather Rogers pose for a portrait after riding their horses in the Christmas parade in Cleveland, Miss., Decemeber 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Old and young alike wait on a trailer for a trail ride to begin in rural Tallahatchie County, Miss., September 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Old and young alike wait on a trailer for a trail ride to begin in rural Tallahatchie County, Miss., September 2017. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>ReRe, a young cowgirl poses for a portrait at the Black Heritage Rodeo in Greenville, Miss., January 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

ReRe, a young cowgirl poses for a portrait at the Black Heritage Rodeo in Greenville, Miss., January 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

<p>Cowboy “Big Mike” Jones watches a dramatic sunset in Isola, Miss., atop his favorite horse, Lucy, March 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle) </p>
‘Delta Hill Riders’ — African-American cowboy culture in the Mississippi Delta

Cowboy “Big Mike” Jones watches a dramatic sunset in Isola, Miss., atop his favorite horse, Lucy, March 2018. (Photograph by Rory Doyle)

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