Black Cowboys Preserve Strong Legacy in Northeast Mississippi | Mississippi News
By DANNY McARTHUR, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
PONTOTOC, Mississippi (AP) — Hours before the scheduled start time, people arrive in their vehicles at a Pontotoc lot for the second most revered Sunday tradition after church: the weekly horse show.
The whinnying of horses punctuates the festive mood as riders make their way to the blue registration tent. It’s a jovial heat, where people set up chairs under tents and women hold umbrellas to block out the sun. Loud music and the smell of food on the grill fill the air as fans find spots around the ring, separated by red dirt and yellow rope.
The host that day is A Step Above Horse Riding Club, one of several all-black riding clubs dotted around northeast Mississippi. It’s a horse business for them, but it’s really an opportunity to meet other people and have a good time, said Verona stable owner Darnell Wright.
“It’s something we like to do. Most of us ride horses before we ride anything else,” Wright said. “It keeps us connected.”
Black cowboys have deep roots in northeast Mississippi. From the beginning of April to the end of October, different clubs organize their own horse shows across the region. Shows usually take place every Sunday, weather permitting. Horse shows, hikes and banquets are how they create a uniquely black and southern space, forming a community that he hopes exists far beyond them.
Many of today’s riders grew up around horses or competed in horse shows in their youth.
Unshay Randle, 45, remembers her father, William Randle, who held horse shows right next to their house. The best, however, are trail rides. This is where everyone comes to mingle and make good-natured ribs.
Some use the hikes for training, but for Randle it’s just a way to relax. Randle is an elected Chickasaw County Constable, Sheriff’s Deputy, veteran, part-time mason, and owner of Randle’s Body Repair.
“I do police work, so I’m always tense,” he said. “I have to do this, I have to do that, but when I go on a hike it’s like I can relax.”
Hikes take place a few times a year when the weather turns cold. It’s unclear who or what will show up at these events: horses, carriages, trucks, kids on go-karts and 4-wheelers, and tractors to pull cart rides.
Randle started riding when he was 8 or 9 years old, and now competes and hosts his own horse shows. Often clubs can form from friends riding horses together. If there are enough of them, they can start their own club or newcomers can join an established club.
Many smaller clubs have come together under the umbrella of a larger group, Northeast Mississippi Riders, of which Randle is president. There is one stipulation: to join, members must ride with the club for two years on probation before the club votes them out. This policy was put in place to separate committed riders from casual riders, Randle said.
A group of young riders in their twenties formed the Ghetto Cowboys and gave Randle a shirt because they associate with him. At the corner of each is a cowboy hat and boots with wings, and the name “LL Cutter,” aka Willie C. Franklin. The club, of which two of his sons are members, all received Franklin memorial shirts after his death last year.
In the last four or five years, the community has lost several really dynamic cowboys. The community deeply feels each loss.
“When you go through it, it’s just one big family,” Randle said.
Most years the band hosts an awards banquet – essentially a cowboy party celebrating year-round performance and hard work. It’s a way to celebrate their community and their love of riding.
“We all work every day. We have a full-time job,” Randle said. “It’s just fun.”
Throughout her childhood and well into adulthood, Shantes Pegues attended horse shows and helped with household chores.
“I had to feed the horses, clean the stalls, help get the horses ready to go to the show,” Pegues said.
So did his father, Alex Pegues, a founding member of A Step Above, a riding club of friends and deacons from various area churches. The band have been together for so long that they can’t remember the exact year they started, although they suspect it was around 15 years ago.
The group formed with a mission to raise funds to help people in the community and to create a space for people to come together.
“That’s why we started,” he says. “To have something that we black people can go to.”
Originally seen as an all-male community, Shantes Pegues said her father initially “got a lot of slack” for letting a girl help out in the barn when he started bringing her to shows. Not that it bothered him much. Her philosophy was, if she loves horses, why not let her get involved.
In hindsight, it was the right choice. These days, Shantes Pegues, now an adult and holder of a bachelor’s degree in animal and dairy science from Mississippi State, competes against both women and men. And the group is still growing. Each show attracts all ages and the club always tries to meet the needs of children.
“That’s our first priority, giving the kids something to do first,” said Alex Pegues. “They are the future of everything we try to do.”
Steve Autry’s time in horse shows may be over, but his connection to the sport and the community is not.
Last year, Autry transformed his land into an amusement ride by filling in ditches, cutting down trees, installing a DJ booth and adding a building. Organizers estimated that at least 100 registrants attended an event on April 24, though the actual number is likely higher. Some fairs have attracted more than a thousand spectators. Autry mentioned adding lights and parking spaces on his list of planned improvements.
Autry has been participating in horse shows for 20 years. His father didn’t ride, so he took it upon himself to learn when he was 10 years old. He went to horse shows with his friends. These days, Autry no longer rides himself, but works with a rider, Terrell Smith of Shannon.
With the horses in step, Autry lives by the motto that the rider and the horse must perform well. With Smith, he saw Cash, his 13-year-old horse, perform like never before.
“The driver makes the difference,” Autry said. “A good rider will beat you on a bad horse.”
West Point’s Jody Glover trains young black people to become the next generation of leaders.
“We need something for our culture,” Glover said. “They need someone to spend time with them, someone to tell them they love them and that you’re doing well, you’re doing well.”
Participating in horse shows in 2009 inspired him to create Houston-based Jody’s Stables.
“I wanted to start my own stable, so I went and built myself a little barn and loaned out my own horses,” Glover said. “Then the kids started wanting to ride bikes.”
Currently, he coaches 10 children, aged 7-17, who cycle most weekdays after school. Competition makes her students eager to learn and improve, Glover said.
“It just excites me for kids at this age who want to come and learn to ride, want to get their parents interested in riding,” Glover said. “I didn’t have that growing up.”
A horse show is much more than the prize money and the designation of the winners of the day. It’s kids rushing around and onlookers laughing and cheering on a friend’s beer dance. He’s the man who looks dapper in his plaid red button down, khaki pants, black cowboy hat and cowboy boots riding the same ring as those in t-shirts with shorts , and horses tucking into their trailers, ready to go home.
Horse shows are something to look forward to every Sunday after church, said Smith, now 37, who has been showing and riding since he was a teenager. A place to gather, relax and have a little fun with a shared community.
“If we weren’t doing this, what would we be doing? ” He asked. “I think there is nothing better.”
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