He was a black hero in a white hat | Singing cowboy was a model for children in the '30s

Gil Griffin

20-Apr-1999 Tuesday

Herb Jeffries

There he was, emerging on the choppy black-and-white film, riding his
galloping white steed, leading his posse across the plains. He was tall,
remarkably handsome and he came complete with Stetson, boots, spurs and
guns in his holsters.

He did fancy rope tricks, twirled his gun, wooed the damsels in distress
with his chivalrous manner -- and he could sing mighty good.

Herb Jeffries was, in the tradition of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, a
Hollywood-created, silver-screen, singing cowboy hero.

He starred in five films in the late 1930s, but Jeffries was a different
type of cowpoke. He was the "the Bronze Buckaroo."

"In those days, my driving force was being a hero to children who didn't
have any heroes to identify with," Jeffries said, who recently moved from
North County to Palm Desert.

"I thought with dark-skinned children, they could identify with me and have
a hero. In the Old West, one out of three cowboys was black and there were
Mexican cowboys, too."

Jeffries will visit San Diego as part of UCSD's two-day "Symposium on the
Black West and Black Western Film Festival," presented by the school's
African and African-American Studies Research Project.

"The public will get an exposure to rare history," said Bennetta
Jules-Rosette, a UCSD sociology professor and principal organizer of the
event. "And hopefully, they'll get another kind of sensitivity to black

The first westerns that featured black performers were made in the 1910s
and 1920s.

In 1916, African-American actor Noble Johnson helped found Lincoln Motion
Pictures. And three years later, African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux,
the son of freed slaves, released his own western, "The Homesteader," an
adaptation of his novel.

Bill Pickett, perhaps the most famous black rodeo star, appeared in the
films, "The Bulldogger" in 1922, "The Crimson Skull" in 1923 and in "Black
Gold" in 1928. "Crimson Skull" and "Black Gold" were filmed in all-black
settlements in Oklahoma, said John Anderson, a lecturer at California
colleges and universities about black westerns,

In the late 1930s, as Hollywood's first singing black cowboy, Jeffries now
87, made history.

From the time he was a child, he was a cowboy at heart. He learned to ride
horses on his grandfather's dairy farm in Michigan and spent many
afternoons in Detroit movie houses watching screen cowboys Buck Jones and
Tom Mix.

But Jeffries, like millions of other children of color, never saw any
cowboys that looked like him.

Jeffries made it his personal mission to change that, after he saw a Jed
Buell film called, "The Terror in Tiny Town," made with a cast of little
people people.

"I thought if he could produce a movie with little people, he'd make a
black picture," Jeffries said.

Jeffries trekked to Buell's Gower Gulch office and persuaded him to make
the pictures, which were distributed by a Dallas company to mostly
segregated black theaters in the South.

He seems a natural in his films, although Jeffries only landed the starring
role as Bob Blake because other actors couldn't pass their screen tests.
Jeffries composed songs for the films and recruited a posse of four other
performers from the Los Angeles black nightclub circuit. He hired Spencer
Williams, who later starred as Andy in television's "Amos 'n' Andy" to
write the scripts for his films.

In one of his recruits, Lucius Brooks, Jeffries found both an on-screen
sidekick and lifelong friend. Brooks, who has an uncanny resemblance to
actor T.C. Carter of the television sitcom, "Living Single," starred as

"It was real vaudeville," Jeffries said of the pair's partnership.

"I was the straight man and he was comic relief. That's one way that black
cowboy pictures were different," Jeffries said.

"We also had more comedy and singing and dancing. And the white
distributors wanted to differentiate white from black films, so that's why
ours had names like `Harlem Rides the Range,' `Harlem on the Prairie' and
`Two Gun Man from Harlem.' "

Jules-Rosette, the UCSD professor, said the films had deeper implications.

"These films were the first to show blacks as heroes and not servants," she
said. "These films allowed blacks to be themselves in a public outlet. They
could be multidimensional people in the movies, while they lived in an
outside world where they had to be subservient."

About a decade after Jeffries retired from the screen, the sun set on the
era of black cowboy films.

"Films became more expensive to make and the market for low-budget race
films dropped out," said Anderson, who is scheduled to speak on a panel at
the UCSD symposium.

"And in the early '50s, African-American actors like Sidney Poitier and
Harry Belafonte broke through in mainstream Hollywood films and race films
weren't as desirable."

But westerns -- not only ones made by black directors -- had left an
indelible mark on African-American cinema.

These films inspired classic "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, including
"Shaft," with their themes of vengeance, said Jules-Rosette.

In Jeffries' films, the all-black casts played sheriffs, landowners,
bartenders, cooks, ranchers and cowboys, just as some African-Americans had
lived in the Old West.

The themes were simple -- a greedy villain and his henchmen angled to
coerce upstanding homesteaders to surrender their property. And just when
it looked as if evil would win, Bob Blake and Dusty would ride in, work
their magic and save the day.

And in between, there'd be heart-warming bits like Dusty's clowning around
with a supposed talking mule he bought and Jeffries crooning the tune
"Prairie Flower" in his sweet, high voice.

"Gene Autry was a big hero of mine and the morality of our pictures was
based on Gene Autry films," Jeffries explained. "The hero wouldn't shoot
anyone unless it was in self-defense. And he'd never smoke, or drink."

Jules-Rosette said even the land issue themes were similar to Autry's
movies, some of which involved migrants from Oklahoma moving west.

During his movie-making days in the late '30s, Jeffries finally met his
hero, Autry, at a cowboy festival in California.

"He walked over to me and told me he liked my pictures," Jeffries said. "I
was thrilled that he came over to me and said that."

The two developed a lasting friendship. Through it all, there was one trait
about Autry that especially impressed Jeffries.

"Different cultures didn't mean anything to him," Jeffries said.

"He felt the same way about the separation of ethnicities as I do. That it
has to stop."

In 1939, Jeffries hung up his spurs to sing and tour with Duke Ellington's
Orchestra. He later served in the military during World War II and lived
for a decade in France, where he ran a jazz supper club.

He still appears in western festivals around the country, where he talks
about the old days. It was then, despite the harsh realities of separation
and discrimination, that Jeffries found a positive in his art.

"I liked the fact that I was out there paving the road to make a better
place, with the movies," he said. "They're an education for everybody."


"Symposium on the Black West: Reinventing History, Reinterpreting Media and
Black Western Film Festival."

The University of California San Diego's African and African-American
Studies Research Project hosts panel discussions and film screenings. 9
a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Herb Jeffries is scheduled to lead a
discussion at 3:25 p.m. Thursday and two of his films ("The Bronze
Buckaroo" and "Harlem Rides the Range") will be screened beginning at 5
p.m. Thursday. Price Center, UCSD. (619) 534-4790 or e-mail

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