Through the pastel-hued streets of North Philadelphia, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves is often heard. Each day, a community of horsemen gather around a stable to tend to their animals, bonding over a shared passion.
Photographer Cian Oba-Smith gravitated towards this small and forgotten kernel of African American horse culture. His project, Concrete Horsemen, offers an alternative view of the archetypal American rider. Though rarely depicted in art or photography, African Americans have been keeping and breeding horses for the past few centuries. Philadelphia is no exception. For over a hundred years there has been a lineage of Black urban horsemen in the city.
A year before travelling to Philadelphia, a routine scroll through Reddit stopped Oba-Smith in his tracks. ‘I was struck by an unusual image – seeing somebody ride a horse in the city is pretty unusual, but the fact it was a Black man was even more unusual,’ he says. The discovery ignited a year-long research mission. He was shocked to find that 13 out of 15 jockeys at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 (a now-annual horse race held in Louisville, Kentucky) were African Americans. Their intimate knowledge of horse-keeping, gained through work done on slave-driven plantations, would see many of them win these early races, most notably Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. ‘Most people racing horses during the early derby days were Black, because they were the slaves of people entering horses into races and derbies,’ says Oba-Smith. Even after the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in 1863, ranchers were compelled to hire skilled African Americans as paid cowhands. Historians estimate that they made up one in four cowboys.
The success of African Americans in horse racing would soon be suffocated however. The Jim Crow laws and racial segregation which followed emancipation, suppressed Black participation. From 1921 to 2000, there were no African Americans in the Kentucky Derby. Since then, it’s Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man who have come to exemplify the American cowboy. ‘The term “cowboy” itself, however, is born from slavery. This was a term typically given to horse-tending slaves by white masters,’ says Oba-Smith. ‘It’s just been reshaped through cinema so that it doesn’t have that connotation anymore.’
Challenging this story is at the heart of Oba-Smith’s work. ‘I tried to subvert the traditional narrative by having low-angled portraits of the horsemen, presenting them as strong individuals,’ he says. Throughout the series, portraits of young African Americans proudly riding horses give way to finer details, depicting life as a Black man in north Philadelphia – an area where 97 per cent of the population is African American and where 50 per cent live below the poverty line. ‘There’s a high rate of homicide in Philadelphia. During the two weeks I spent photographing the project, I regularly saw people going to memorials for lost loved ones. One of the young men in the photos had three friends killed within three months of me leaving.’
Oba-Smith embedded himself within the group of horsemen to achieve the project’s intimacy. Shared experiences growing up as a minority helped him to identify with the community members. ‘I’m a mixed-race Londoner and I didn’t grow up with lots of money. Most of the time that I spent with the community was spent hanging around, playing basketball, and cracking jokes,’ he says. ‘There were things that we could connect with on a personal level. If you’re Black in any country with a history of racial injustice, you can kind of identify with other Black people.’
The project was shot at the end of 2016, during the pivotal turning point in US political history that saw the election of Donald Trump. Since then, the conversation around race across the world has deepened. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin on 25 May 2020 drew global condemnation, igniting widespread demonstrations. In Philadelphia, hundreds of protestors took to the streets on 26 October 2020, in response to another police killing – that of Walter Wallace Jr.
‘Concrete Horsemen has now taken on a life of its own with recent events,’ says Oba-Smith. ‘These subjects were perhaps not spoken about as openly as they are in the current political climate. Talking about them won’t magic them away, but it’s the first step in moving towards a solution. Concrete Horsemen was in part a reflection of what I would like to see happen, which is for equality to be achieved. In 50 years’ time, maybe people can look back at the work and say “this is what it was like back then, this was the problem – look how we fixed it”.’