This piece originally ran in BadAzz MoFo #4, which came out in 1999. It is part of The BadAzz MoFo Collection, now on sale.
The cowboy has long been a perennial part of American folklore. Like the Japanese samurai, or the European knight in shining armor, the cowboy has gone on to become the American ideal of heroism, manliness, truth and honor. Thanks to the motion picture industry, images of Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood all come mind as the arch-typical hero of the old west; and have kept the cowboy white.
In truth, the black cowboy did exist in the Old West. But while the popular fiction and yellow journalism of the day was quick to call attention to lawmen like Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp and outlaws like Billy the Kid; their Black counterparts were largely neglected. U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves was long considered one of the greatest lawmen of the old west, with a career that spanned thirty-two years. Outlaws like Cherokee Bill were as ruthless as Billy the Kid, and The Rufus Buck Gang committed a crime spree worse than the Dalton and James Gangs combined. Yet these historical figures are barely known, and hardly discussed.
Thanks to the whitewash of history, the contributions of Blacks (not to mention Chinese, Indians, and women) has been neglected. Likewise, Hollywood has been notoriously irresponsible in their depiction of truth, justice, and the American way. The great explorer Jim Beckworth, who discovered the Beckworth pass, which connects California and Nevada through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was portrayed by white actor Jack Oakie in the film Tomahawk.
Despite Hollywood’s reluctance to show Blacks riding tall in the saddle, the Black cowboy has found a home in the movies. One of the first Black Westerns was the 1921 silent film The Crimson Skull. World famous rodeo star Bill Pickett appeared in Crimson Skull, and two years later Pickett would star in the documentary Bull-Dogger. The comedy short A Chocolate Cowboy appeared in 1925, in an attempt to give Black audiences a cowboy hero.
The big break through for Black Westerns came during the race films of the thirties. In 1938 Herb Jeffries (a.k.a. Herbert Jeffrey) starred in Two Gun Man from Harlem, the first in series of films that would establish Jeffries as the Black singing cowboy. Appearing as the heroic lead in Harlem on the Prairie (1938); The Bronze Buckaroo (1938); and Harlem Rides the Range (1939) Jeffries would go on to be come a matinee idol for the segregated audiences of the time. Riding to the rescue on his trusty horse Stardusk, Herb Jeffries became one of the first black action heroes in the history of film. (NOTE: Years later, Jeffries would confess that he was not of African descent, but merely passing as being black.)
Along with Jeffries, other black actors of the day appeared in the handful of westerns that were produced. Spencer Williams appeared in several films along side Jeffries, including Harlem Rides the Range, which Williams wrote. Mantan Moreland appeared in Come On, Cowboy (1948), a comedy western musical, and Louis Jordan starred in 1946’s Look-Out Sister.
The 1950s saw virtually no screen presence for the Black cowboy. It wasn’t until 1960, when Woody Strode appeared as the title character in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (above), that Black actors would begin to start appearing mainstream Hollywood westerns. Strode would prove to be the forerunner to the black action heroes of the seventies; making several appearances in horse operas throughout the sixties. Strode’s performances ranged from memorable cameos (Once Upon a Time in the West) to co-leads (Sergeant Rutledge, Boot Hill and The Professionals).
As America (and the film industry) began to desegregate, so to did the Hollywood western – albeit grudgingly. The path that was blazed by Woody Strode would be followed by Jim Brown. Roles in Rio Conchos (1964) and 100 Rifles (1969) would help to establish Brown as the leading black action hero of the 60s. Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis would also make appearances in westerns during the sixties; Poitier in Duel at Diablo (1966) and Davis in The Scalphunters (1968).
Television westerns were never more popular than they were during the sixties. Taking advantage of changing racial attitudes, popular western television series like Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Big Valley occasionally would have black guest stars. Yaphet Kotto, Brock Peters, Woody Strode, Frank Silvera, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Raymond St. Jaques were among the actors that usually played former slaves or buffalo soldiers. In 1968, ABC premiered the series The Outcasts (left). The offbeat series followed the adventures of two bounty hunters; Earl Corey (Don Murray), a former slave owner, and Jemal David (Otis Young), who co-starred with Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail) a former slave. The shaky alliance between the two bounty hunters allowed producers to explore issues of racism in the old west.From a historical standpoint, the series offered what may have been television’s first black action hero. The Outcasts held a certain amount of promise, unfortunately, it only lasted one season.
During the seventies, the blaxploitation genre was taking America by storm, and it seemed as if there was finally hope for Black westerns. Jim Brown started the decade by starring in 1970’s El Condor. Two years later came Buck & the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte; and Fred Williamson in The Legend of Nigger Charley. Cleavon Little appeard as perhaps the most famous of all on-screen black cowboys, in Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles, which had been co-written by Richard Pryor, who was originally to star in the film. Pryor would get his shot at a comedy western when he appeared in Fred Williamson’s disappointing Adios, Amigo. Williamson starred in a series of westerns (Joshua, Take a Hard Ride), doing his most to make the Black cowboy a familiar part of the American consciousness. Unfortunately, Hollywood has been reluctant to release it’s stranglehold on the western, and white cowboys.
John Wayne, and the white cowboy has become the last bastion of hope for the white race; promising to ride up on his white horse to save this great nation of ours, from whatever savages threaten our safety. Through Hollywood and the western, lies and half-truths can continue to be propagated, and the Black cowboy, the true original cowboy, will remain forever an oddity.