Frank "Penny" Edwards saw a black cowboy for the first time when he was in his late 20s. Before then, he didn't know they even existed. Now, decades later, he is the founder and president of the Real Cowboy Association.
Founded in 1981, the RCA has held Black Rodeos in 18 cities in 7 different states. A decade ago, Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. Asked Edwards if he would bring his rodeo to Jackson. "And I told him yes," Edwards says enthusiastically. "That's where it all started, and we've been here ever since, and we love the place!" The RCA will hold its 10th annual Black Rodeo in the coliseum in downtown Jackson July 7.
Edwards likes to host the Black Rodeo in Jackson because it sheds a light on a forgotten past. "When we got to Jackson, a lot of black and white people had never seen black cowboys. That made it really, really unique," he says.
It's true—a black cowboy is not something that many Americans are used to seeing, with all the stereotypical cowboys in movies, TV and book covers being specifically white.
A black cowboy operating outside the stereotype, rodeo rider Bobby Harrison gets some strange reactions when doing what he loves. "People drive by (when I pull a horse trailer), see that I'm a black cowboy, and immediately turn their heads," he says. "They're like 'what is that?'"
But after 43 years of the same reactions, Harrison is used to it. "Me being black, I want to show that I can compete with any color, and I'm just as competitive as any other race," he says.
Harrison is not alone. At the upcoming rodeo in Jackson, 520 cowboys are registered to compete, most of them non-white. Riders hail from states all over the country—Alabama, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas to name a few.
Back when it was founded, the RCA was a 99-percent black organization. The association is much more diverse now, but still holds events under the title of Black Rodeo. "(But) the rodeo is open for anyone to come and compete," Harrison clarifies. "They say it's a black rodeo to get the black crowd to see that there are black cowboys and to come see their own people."
"We're just trying to paint a picture of the forgotten cowboy," Edwards says. "We try to educate and entertain (the audience) at the same time."
The type of education the rodeo provides, particularly the responsibility of caring for animals, has a positive effect on many people involved, especially the youth.
Bobby "Hoss" Harrison has seen the way rodeo responsibilities have helped kids in his neighborhood. "There was this one boy, he was just a renegade in the school. I finally went to him and said, 'You can't ride these horses until your report card gets better,'" Harrison says. "He started making As and Bs in school and now he plays basketball at Alabama State, on his way to the pros. That was just two years ago, and now his brothers are following in his footsteps."
The events at the RCA's rodeo in Jackson will include bull dogging, calf roping, kid's sheep riding and barrel racing. Old-school band Con Funk Shun and the hip hop artist J Dash will perform.
"One thing we want to let Jackson know is that we're bringing the baddest show on dirt to Mississippi," Edwards says.
The 10th annual Black Rodeo starts at 10 a.m. July 7 at the Mississippi Coliseum (1207 Mississippi St., 601-961-4000). Tickets are $18. For more information call 601-353-0603 or visit realcowboyassociation.com.