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Not their first rodeo: How Black riders are reclaiming their place in cowboy culture

Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss., Oct. 9, 2021
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss., Oct. 9, 2021

Growing up in Mississippi, Justin Hardiman remembers going to his grandmother's house and watching his family members ride horses. But it wasn't until he was 15 that his father took him to his first Black rodeo.

It was eye-opening to see cowboys who looked more like him and less like the white cowboys he was used to seeing on TV. Hardiman knew he was witnessing something special.

It was at the event that Hardiman first saw a future of becoming a rider himself. Today, at age 32, he not only rides at rodeos put on by his uncle but documents them as part of his work as a Mississippi-based photographer.

"I just decided to document [my uncle's rodeo] because it's a big part of Mississippi culture and a big part of my childhood and my adulthood now. My uncle has brought [that culture] back," Hardiman says.

His uncle experienced a far different reality as a child growing up in the segregated South in the 1960s. Back then, local rodeos did not allow Black cowboys to compete.

"Because of the color of my skin, I was not permitted to participate in the rodeos in my hometown," says James Hardiman, Justin Hardiman's uncle.

Historically, Black cowboys have been largely forgotten when it comes to pop culture depictions of old-time cowboy culture — think John Wayne or the Marlboro Man. In reality, Black cowboys have always been an important part of cowboy history, as some estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 4 cowboys were Black.

Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.

In 2016, James Hardiman founded the Big Rodeo Project as a way to help give kids the kind of opportunity he was unable to have at an early age.

James Hardiman and his business partner, Dr. Annie Powell, organize two to three rodeos each year in Greenville, Miss. Their goal has been to reconnect their community with Black cowboy culture, while at the same time fostering an inclusive rodeo event that can bring people together regardless of race.

"There's a few rodeos that happen in Jackson, but my uncle, he has this rodeo in the Delta, and there's not a lot of access to rodeos up there in that area now. So him doing this rodeo is just bringing it back to that area," says Justin Hardiman.

"I think what he's doing is giving kids that kind of childhood that [I] had growing up. Now [people in our community] can look back and say, 'I remember when we had that rodeo.' "

"You never know where that will take those kids," says Hardiman. "It's about the experience."

Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
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Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
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Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
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Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.
/ Justin Hardiman
/
Justin Hardiman
Big Rodeo Project, Greenville, Miss.

Photographer Justin Hardiman is a self-taught photographer and visual artist from Jackson, Miss. His images capture the empowerment and resilience of his community. Hardiman's artistic vision has been displayed around the world using Mississippi as his muse. Follow his work at justinhardimanvisuals.com or on Instagram: @kail_soul.

Michele Abercrombie and Zayrha Rodriguez contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grace Widyatmadja
Grace Widyatmadja is a photo editing intern working with NPR's visuals desk and Goats & Soda.
Photos by Justin Hardiman