Herb Jeffries
The Bronze Buckaroo

- Kathy Lynn Wills of "Cowboys & Indians"


"I belong to the human race," says Herb Jeffries somewhat defiantly. "We all do. I'm a chameleon," he continues. "I can be anything I want." Jeffries has been a lot: pioneering cowboy actor, singer and songwriter, to name a few.

In fact, during his long career, Jeffries was often assumed to be Italian, Latin African-American, Caucasian, and even Jewish (Jeffries speaks Yiddish, among other languages). But more important than how his vast audiences identified his race was Jeffries' own decision on who to be - a choice he made as the star of a series of all-black Westerns in 1937 and 1938.

For some it may be difficult to comprehend what it meant to be a black man in 1930s America. At that time, the choice of where to live, where to eat, or even which movie to see were all dictated by the color of your skin. The impact of his choice, perhaps small by today's standards, directed the rest of the young singer's career and his life.
"I decided some time ago," Jeffries said in a 1951 interview in Life magazine, "that the Negro people need all the good, intelligent, unbelligerent representatives they can get in this world, and I'm trying to be one." At the time, Jeffries' nightclub shows were the hottest ticket on the French Riviera.

Jeffries' professional career began as a teenager in his native Detroit. After he had success singing with local groups, Jeffries set out in search of his fortune, and during his career sang with the leading big jazz bands of Earl "Fatha" Hines, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington.

Jeffries recalls, "On a tour through the South, I saw thousands and thousands of little tin roof Negro movie theaters… There were thousands of theaters playing white cowboy pictures." Why can't we make black cowboy pictures? Jeffries remembers thinking. When a tour singing with the Blanche Calloway orchestra ended in Los Angeles, a young Jeffries - still in his 20s - began searching for financing to make the cowboy serials he knew would be a hit.

In 1936 Jed Buell, an independent Hollywood producer, finally gave him his first chance. "He bought my story in 15 minutes," Jeffries explains. "He called his distributor in Dallas, Albert Sack, who said he would take all the black cowboy pictures we could make." And so began a landmark in filmmaking that is now all but forgotten. The first film produced was Harlem On The Prairie.

Widely experienced as a singer, Jeffries never intended to star in this series of films. Buell thought he was too light-skinned and said audiences wouldn't accept him as a black man. But when the search for a leading man failed to discover an actor who could ride, sing and act convincingly in dramatic scenes, Jeffries, with make-up to darken his skin and a hat tied on to hide his naturally wavy hair, won the part.
"The biggest actors we had all played subservient roles," Jeffries explains, commenting on the parts available for black performers during his early time in Hollywood. "I was a hero. There were no other heroes. Jeffries was, in fact, the first black singing cowboywho played a hero in a dramatic, full-length feature film.

Jeffries was, however, not the first black actor to ride across the silver screen. "Beginning around World War I," according to John Langellier, director of publications and productions for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, "A few black Westerns (made by African-American owned movie companies) had been produced chiefly for segregated audiences."