Earlean Lawrence poses for a portrait outside her home in Cleveland, Mississippi on Oct. 10, 2019.
ReRe, a young cowgirl, poses for a portrait at the Black Heritage Rodeo in Greenville — 2018.
Pam Gary’s thigh tattoo is revealed during a trail ride in Tallahatchie County — 2017.
Peggy Smith grooms her horse, Big Jake, while others relax in the afternoon light in Bolivar County — 2018.
Girdine Smith, 91, gets her hair prepared before a family photo by her daughter Carolyn Johnson at Smith’s home in Charleston — 2018.
Barbara Wrenn dances with her husband, Joe, at the annual Valentines’ Day dance at Club Black Castle in Ruleville — 2018.
Kennedy gets a ride on a mini horse, assisted by her godfather Lester Brisby, in Bolivar County — 2019.
Peggy Smith poses for a portrait on her family’s farm in Charleston — 2017.
Bree Gary pets her friend’s horse during a muddy trail ride in Charleston — 2019.
Pam Gary gives rides to the little ones in Tallahatchie County — 2017.
One-year-old birthday portrait session in Bolivar County — 2018.
Marwa Cherraf loses her hat at a horse show in Greenville — 2018.
“Ms. Freaky” at Burning City Blues Club in Shaw — 2019.
Pam Gary stops at a service station for a snack break during a trail ride in Tallahatchie County — 2018.
Earlean Lawrence poses for a portrait in Cleveland — 2019.
Bree Gary waits for her friends to catch up during a trail ride in Tallahatchie County — 2018.
Mary Smith dances with her husband, Aubrey Smith, in Ruleville — 2019.
Peggy Smith hangs out with her horse in Bolivar County — 2018.
A group of friends wait for a trail ride to begin in Tillatoba — 2019.
Bobbie Richardson takes the dance floor at The All New Sugar Shack in Choctaw — 2017.
Delta cowgirls and cowboys hang out at Club Black Castle in Ruleville — 2019.
Just after the Civil War, one in four cowboys were African American, but this diversity has not been fairly represented in historical accounts. To this day, the cowboy and cowgirl identity retains a strong presence in many black communities, including in the Mississippi Delta.
This gallery pays special attention to the cowgirls of the Delta, integral members of the local culture who are often overlooked. These images are part of my ongoing documentary project shining light on this riding subculture. The project resists both historical and contemporary stereotypes.
The body of work reveals how deep and diverse the cowgirl community is. I’ve been invited to black heritage rodeos, horse shows, trail rides, “Cowboy Night” at black nightclubs and subjects’ homes across the Delta.
On a personal level, I’ve been welcomed by these folks in a way I could not have imagined. And, because of that, it’s been the most engaging project I’ve worked on. It’s a story that’s particularly timely with the current political environment and one that provides a renewed focus on rural America.
Rory Doyle is a working photographer based in Cleveland. Born and raised in Maine, Doyle studied journalism at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont.
He was a 2018 Mississippi Visual Artist Fellow through the Mississippi Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts. Doyle won the 16th Annual Smithsonian Photo Contest, the 2019 Southern Prize from the South Arts organization, the 2019 Zeiss Photography Award, the 2019 ZEKE Award for Documentary Photography, and the 2019 Michael P. Smith Award for Documentary Photography from the New Orleans Photo Alliance.
He has had solo exhibitions in New York City, London, Atlanta and Mississippi. Doyle’s work has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian and CNN.