After politicians deliver their speeches and the swarms of media pack away their equipment, the afternoon at the Neshoba County Fair is filled with fairgoers cheering and horses digging through red dirt around a race track that is more than 100 years old.
And though betting is technically illegal, the hopes of winning a few extra dollars ride on each race.
The harness racing competition is a long standing tradition at the Neshoba County Fair dating back to the early 1900s.
The event also symbolizes another tradition for which the fair, and this region of Mississippi, has earned notoriety: unspoken racial tension.
The majority of the harness racers are black men. The spectators, like most Neshoba fairgoers, are overwhelmingly white.
During the first part of the 20th century, white supremacist political leaders such as James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo — both of whom served as governor and U.S. senator — and Gov. Ross Barnett drew large crowds. In 1964, the bodies of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, were found near the fairgrounds. A fair organizer said at the time that even though “those people didn’t have any business here,” they weren’t going to let the murders dampen the mood at the fair.
In the early 1990s, a fight broke out between a black harness racer and his white competitor. A black horse racer told the Los Angeles Times then of how to avoid trouble at the Neshoba County Fair: “Mainly, they just don’t want to see a black with a white lady. As long as you don’t do that, you won’t have any problem.”
Nonetheless, the tradition lives on.
James Lee, 62, of Philadelphia, Miss., who is white, has been attending the fair and watching the harness racing competition for over 50 years. “That’s basically what I come here for, to watch the races,” Lee said. “I just like to watch the animals, you know, I like the horses.”
The races start midway through the fair on Sunday and wrap up on Friday – the last day of the fair. Riders travel from as far away as Texas and from all over Mississippi to compete.
At race time, an announcer calls the riders to the track in a tone can be jarring at times. “You’ll hurry up!” the announcer screamed at one point as the riders made their way to the track. Some of the horses, with bloodied legs and scars, showed the toll of five days of races.
Most of the harness drivers declined to talk about the racial dynamics of the fair — their focus is on the love of racing and winning.
“I’ve been coming here since I’ve been old enough to walk,” said Jamie Daniels, of Clinton, who was introduced to harness racing and the Neshoba County fair by his grandfather. “Its fun, It’s a trill when driving (the harness),” said Daniels. “You have people who want to ride a motorcycle or drive a car. We want to race a horse.”
View a photo gallery below. All photos by Eric J. Shelton: