An Invented Life: The Harlem Brand Emblazoned on Stories of the Wild, Wild West

"Most people come to this world by stork.  I came by flamingo, and Duke Ellington delivered me."
                                                                                                                                                                    -Herb Jeffries


Herb Jeffries as "Bob Blake"
He is the last surviving member of Duke Ellington’s band.  At age 98, he lives comfortably with his fifth wife in a warm San Diego suburb, Idyllwild.  He has five children and more grandchildren and great- grand children than he can count. He makes occasional celebrity appearances in southern California, appropriately dressed for the occasion, still able to share the gift that made him famous—his rich baritone voice.  He enjoyed a rapid rise to fame while the vectors of history briefly aligned and became a national celebrity, earning himself a star on Hollywood Blvd, along with many other honors. Another, more dubious claim to fame, is that his second wife was Blaze Starr, well-known Hollywood stripper and reputed paramour of Sammie Davis Jr., Vic Damone and JFK.  His name is Herb Jeffries (a.k.a. Herbert Jeffery) and he was the American cinema’s first black singing cowboy.

Born in Detroit in 1913, Jeffries fell in love with music at a young age, and sang in a church choir. But, he was especially attracted to jazz and blues. While he liked school, he was a student during the Depression, when money was scarce.  He decided to quit high school and go to work.  Years later, he would return to school, graduate, and even receive several honorary degrees; but at that time, the goal was to earn enough money to help his family.  Gifted with an exceptional singing voice, besides singing in the church choir, he performed locally in Detroit night clubs.  He eventually made his way to Chicago to become part of the city’s famous jazz scene.  By 1934, he caught the eye of jazz great, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, and began touring with Hines's band. Over the next two years, Jeffries also sang with the Tommy Dorsey Band and the Blanche Calloway Orchestra.


Blaze Starr
Jeffries recalls, "On a tour through the South, I saw hundreds of little tin roof Negro movie theaters… There were thousands of theaters playing white cowboy pictures. Why can't we make black cowboy pictures?” When on tour with the Calloway orchestra ended in Los Angeles, a young Jeffries—still in his 20s—began searching for financing to make the cowboy movies he believed could be a hit.

Partially because of racism and partially because white studio executives believed that the majority of black movie fans couldn't afford to attend many movies, the major studios were not eager to make films that catered to minority audiences.  A lack of funding also limited the number of films that black studios could make.  But Jeffries was convinced that a real demand existed for films that could both inspire and entertain black audiences.  And despite segregation, there were plenty of venues available. It was estimated that there were nearly 500 ‘all negro’ theaters in the U.S. in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, Jeffries’s attempts to persuade wealthy businessmen to front money for black films proved unsuccessful.  But, he continued to seek out a producer who might be able to get a cowboy movie made—someone who would not see the black audience as a liability. That search, and an ad in an entertainment trade magazine, led him to Jed Buell.

Buell, a white, independent Hollywood producer, was a veteran of the movie industry. He had gotten his start as a theater manager on the west coast, and then went to work for Mack Sennett, for whom he became director of publicity. Eventually, Buell became the Sennett Studios' assistant general manager. During the mid-30s, he struck out on his own and set up an independent production company. He produced baritone Fred Scott in a couple of singing westerns (including The Roaming Cowboy and The Rangers' Roundup), and was also working with a former comedian from the silent era, Andy Clyde. By the late ‘30s, he would become known for taking chances on the unusual—he did an all-midget western, The Terror of Tiny Town—and was planning to do an all-female western (to be called, Follies on Horseback). In 1936, it was Buell who was willing to give Jeffries his opportunity and produce an all-black western, thus defining a new archetype in the race film industry.


"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. Re-appropriating an existing white western movie script with black dialogue and punch lines, the first film produced under this new partnership 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 (‘light-brights,’ as they were known in the industry [Donald: 114]),saying audiences wouldn't accept him as a black man, despite his having sung with several black jazz and dance bands by this time.  This search for a leading man failed to discover an actor who could ride, sing and act convincingly in dramatic scenes.  So, Jeffries, with make-up applied to darken his skin (“Max Factor, Egyptian #24’) and a wide-brimmed, white Stetson to hide his naturally-wavy hair, ‘reluctantly’ assumed the part.


Jeffries in his Ellington days
"The biggest actors we had all played subservient roles," Jeffries now says, commenting on the parts available for black performers during his early time in Hollywood. "I became a hero. There were no other black western heroes, at a time when Westerns were a very popular movie theme.”  Jeffries thus, became the first black, singing cowboy to play the part of a hero in a dramatic, full-length feature film.

What followed, during the years, 1937-38 was a series of four all-black westerns—with Jefferies as the cowboy-hero.  He composed and performed his own western songs as part of the storyline. He also hired Spencer Williams—who would later play the television role of Andy, in Amos and Andy—to appear as his ‘sidekick.’  In addition to starring and singing in his films, Jeffries also performed his own stunts as the cowboy character, ‘Bob Blake.’  He soon became known as the ‘Bronze Buckaroo’ by fans, who flocked to his films. In a time of American racial segregation, these films played mostly in theaters catering to African American audiences. After, Harlem on the Prairie there followed a rapid succession of similar-themed features: The Bronze Buckaroo, Harlem Rides the Range and, Two Gun Man from Harlem.

In 1940, Jeffries, a deep baritone with a 4-1/2 octave range, wore his well-known Western garb to a New York club, where Duke Ellington was appearing.  Recognizing a star in the crowd, Ellington invited Jeffries on stage to perform.  He was subsequently placed under contract, thereby bringing his movie career to an abrupt end. He appeared on tour with Ellington for the next three years, to be replaced by Al Hibbler, in 1943. His most famous song from that period, Flamingo, has sold many millions of copies over the years.

In subsequent decades, Jeffries appeared in a number of movies, television variety shows and continues to release song collections on disc, perform and sing at charity events, even today.  His voice brought him wealth and fame, his brief venture into film-making, as a black cowboy hero, brought him notoriety and a place in the annals of stardom.  But, the most important feature of the Herb Jeffries story would not be told for many years—a fact that was surprising because of its profundity, in terms of the how he chose to live his life, and revealing for the way it reflects on our own culture and perceptions.  

Race Movies, Race Records and the Evolution of Black Consciousness

Jeffries’s rapid ascent as a black cowboy hero took place in a time when a confluence of social, political and economic forces was in play to support his notoriety. It was a ‘perfect storm’ of opportunity:
  • as the Harlem middle class, defined, in part, by a small, but visionary and prolific literati, struggled to identify a meaningful place for the segregated Harlem community in the modern city of New York and America;
  • as liberal ‘elements’ actively sought to coalesce resources and energy in support of their belief in ground-up, radical social change, based on the writings of Marx and others, and;
  • as the nexus between a new generation of black entertainers and movie industry agencies emerged, with new-found means for distributing a powerful visual and spoken message through a growing number of ‘race movie’ screening houses, under a struggling, but tenacious independent film-production model. 


The smooth, capable ‘Bronze Buckaroo’ would play with equal bravado to poor black audiences in unheated, tin-roofed buildings in squalid Southern towns and black theaters in Harlem, Chicago and Detroit—cities brimming with migrant families from below the Mason-Dixon Line, seeking social empowerment and a chance to reinvent themselves, far from the harsh, Jim Crow-defined world of the South.

This document will consider the career of Herb Jeffries—black cinema star—from the perspective of three related themes that impacted the trajectory of his success: evolving issues of black identity considered in the context of the `30s Harlem experience, as seen through the eyes of Ralph Ellison and other black writers of the day; Swing Era music and its role in shaping black identity and, specifically, Jeffries’s career; and the nurturing value of ghetto movie houses, and the celebrity culture they spawned, as an empowering force in the culture of “The New Negro.”


       I. ‘The New Negro:’ Caught in the Web of an International Struggle

In 1925, Alain Locke wrote what he hoped would be the defining statement about the black literary and cultural movement in Harlem, during the promising early stages of the ‘Harlem Renaissance.’  “[He] firmly believed that the literary work composing The New Negro embodied ‘a renewed race spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart” (Dawahare: 67). He aspired to see this post-Great War generation of blacks as unashamed of their race and culture, and whose contributions would strengthen democracy in America.  Locke’s argument for a movement devoted to racial expression, black pride and American social reform gained traction at the time of its publication, but ignored ideological disputes, raging concurrently, as to whether black nationalism, variations on communism ideology or American capitalism could provide the best route out of the ghetto, for the country’s black working class.

The broader debate focused on the large numbers of blacks who emerged from World War I, radicalized by failed promises of government, returning to streets and neighborhoods that were little-changed in terms of segregationist attitudes since before the war. For those who had remained home during the war, vacated jobs in factories and shops—together with rampant Jim Crow laws, lynching and a poor cotton crop  fueled a ‘Great Migration’ of 500,000 disenfranchised black workers to major cities in the north, to fill those positions.  Following the war, returning whites found black workers now comprised a significant component of the work force, fostering resentment and anger. White indignation, together with high veteran unemployment and inflation, soon fueled violence in the streets of many cities in 1919—a period called the Red Summer—resulting in the deaths of dozens, with thousands injured or left homeless.

These wide-spread, worker-driven race riots earned the imprimatur ‘Red’ because, in the minds of some, they corresponded with the Red Scareof 1919-20. Following the Russian Revolution, anti-Bolshevik sentiment in the United States quickly replaced the anti-German sentiment of the
World War I years.  Many politicians and government officials, together with much of the press and the public, feared an imminent attempt to overthrow the government of the United States and create a new regime, modeled on that of the Soviets.  In that atmosphere of public hysteria, authorities viewed African Americans' advocacy of racial equality, labor rights, or the rights of victims of mobs to defend themselves with alarm. In a private conversation in March 1919, President Wilson said that "the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America” (McWhirter: 56).

During the 1930s, the political debate regarding change from without (Marxism, Stalinism, Trotskyism), versus change from within (Black Nationalism, radicalized labor unrest, or social democracy) remained center-stage for certain left-wing writers, politicians and social activists, alike.  Principle among them was Ralph Ellison.  Many features of this struggle, and the author’s disillusionment with the radical left as a force for change in the black community were incorporated into Ellison’s, Invisible Man (1952). But, in the `30s, when Ellison had begun actively writing for such left-wing publications as, New Challenge and The Masses, his belief in the inclusionary nature of the communist platform for blacks seemed codified.  He saw scores of black leaders in Harlem embracing the socialist message, continuing to develop traction in the late `20s-early `30s. Their organizing efforts were in direct competition with racial separatists like Marcus Garvey, the politically-conservative NAACP, and other fringe organizations, who were attempting to win the hearts and minds of blacks in Harlem. ”But, the movement was given significant momentum when the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, meeting in Moscow in 1928, adopted a ‘Resolution on the Negro Question,’ which introduced the demand for black self-determination as a key concept in communist politics in the United States” (Sundquist: 18).  Upon arriving in New York in 1936, these events must have, in no small way, led to Ellison’s commitment to lend his ‘voice’ to the radical left press in the years that followed.

During this radical-leftist phase of Ellison’s career (mid`30s to early `40s), and while still under the influence of leftist, black Chicago writer, Richard Wright (also a contributor to The Masses) and others, “Ellison distanced himself from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, considered by 1930s activists too bourgeois and lacking in class consciousness, and his book reviews in particular are laden with the ‘scientific’ discourse of historical materialism, a theory that explained social and cultural relations strictly in terms of the world’s economic structure” (Sundquist: 19).  

For the group-authored, WPA-era report, Portrait of Harlem, 1938 (Sundquist: 149), which optimistically depicted it as ‘the city within a city,’ Ellison was a major critic of the trend toward the self-inflicted ‘degradation’ of the Negro community.  The WPA Writers’ Project produced a series of public guides to cities around the U.S.  In this excerpt—part of New York Panorama (1938), they write:

“Although Harlem is the largest Negro community in the world, most of its restaurants, hotels, saloons, and retail shops are owned by Greeks, Germans, Jews, Italians, Irish and other white groups.  In business, more than in any other field, the Harlem Negro has shown a lack of initiative that puts Harlem in sharp contrast with many Negro communities throughout the country.  Negro boys and girls are rarely employed as clerks in Harlem stores, but work downtown as maids, porters, elevator and errand boys.  Most of Harlem’s Negro-owned businesses are in the field of personal service.  The community contains more than 2,000 Negro barber shops and ‘beauty parlors.’  On the other hand, Harlem has proved a haven for the professional class, which numbers about 5,000.  Physicians and dentists are especially numerous” (Sundquist: 152).

Ellison saw strength in the “surreal blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams which characterize much of Negro American history” (Sundquist: 31).  He skeptically noted that the temptation towards the WPA view of, Harlem, USA, as representative of black America-at-large, [can be] placed “with those recent movies which, after promising to depict Negroes honestly, step back into the black-face of traditional burlesque” (Sundquist: 149).  In an oblique confirmation of Ellison’s objections to the naive optimism of the Federal Writers’ Project report, the authors presciently noted that, “Because of its highly sensitive social and political temper, Harlem has been termed the ‘focal point in the struggle for the liberation of the Negro people;’” alluding then to “[their] peculiar susceptibility to social and political propaganda…”  (Sundquist: 153).

But, ironically, within the Harlem community—plagued as it was by economic repression and long-standing racial stereotyping—there was, in the mid-1930s, a deeply-felt faith in the power of the community and its people to prevail.  Before the renaissance in music and culture of the `20s was crushed by the Depression, Harlem had caught a fleeting glimpse of what it could be.  And then, briefly again, in the mid-30s, an emergent black, intellectual middle class had garnered the attention and support of liberal and influential change-agents in the fields of arts and letters, encouraging many to stay and call Harlem ‘home.’  The promise of social and political enfranchisement was present, too, as with blacks attracted to various communist-backed organizations, as they painted a picture for the oppressed masses of a worker-centric future, absent any racial bias.

It was in this climate of hope and optimism—in spite of the harsh realities of everyday life—that Harlemites retreated to the darkened cinemas of the city, where they were provided with raw materials for cultural striving: movies by blacks, for blacks, offering a temporary escape from the pressures of the street.  Here could be found a healthy diet of song and dance numbers, adventure in far-away places, depictions of wealth and opportunity, happy endings, and a familiar all-black cast playing cinematic ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’—all in the magical, flickering light of a celluloid world.                

       II. Music Lessons- The Sound of Black Identity Played to a Dancing Beat

In the beginning, jazz music belonged to the black community.  Born in the deep south—its roots in blues, soul and gospel—Jazz moved north to cities like New York, Chicago and Kansas City with the ‘Great Migration’ of the `teens and 1920s.  It formed the musical foundation of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’

Swing (jazz) music morphed from these traditional roots in the 1920s distinguished by a more open and free-ranging style than the earlier, more literal, 4/4 jazz of the turn-of-the-century, with its sweet tunes and romantic lyrics. Another feature, the ‘walking base,’ was introduced to carry the beat line (‘in the groove’) and outline the tonality of the piece for other members of the orchestra, who might be asked to improvise a stand-up solo.  

This musical idiom never gained the popularity of the earlier dance form of jazz. The few recordings made of this experimental style were labeled race records, intended for a limited urban audience. Few white musicians were familiar with this music, and it flourished through the early 1930s, although there was little mass audience for it until around 1935. Up until then, it was viewed with ridicule and considered a curiosity. After 1935, big bands with black leaders, like Earl “Fatha” Hines, Duke Ellington and Cont Basie, rose to prominence performing swing music on live radio broadcasts that were ‘remoted’ into dance clubs, in movies with big band musical scenes scripted in and in live performance.  This broad exposure helped break the color barrier, defining Swing as a distinctive and internationally-recognized, and uniquely-American musical style for whites and blacks alike, to dance to and enjoy.
Paul Anderson notes that, Ralph Ellison, while a student of music at his Oklahoma City high school, reflected later that the African-American jazz clubs of his youth,“[that when these players] expressed their attitude toward the world, it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form […] The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization” (In, Posnoc: 82)  In the 1940s, as Ellison considered the shift away from the swing style of Louis Armstrong to the jazz-modernist approach of Charlie Parker, he reveals his “fascinating and rarely discussed inhabitation of the posture of a musical revanchist  committed to the musical superiority of certain pre-World War II idioms, [that is] his idealization of the ‘masterful self-invention’ and ‘marvels of social organization’ [of Armstrong’s music]” (Posnoc: 83).   

Ellison takes this view of ‘social organization’ in music a step further, managing to define the creative process in terms well-suited to a racially-sensitive, politically-savvy writer.  While at Tuskegee, and throughout the 30s, he often noted the influence on him of French music critic, Andre Malraux’s writings.   To the extent that Malraux viewed each artistic masterpiece as “a purification of the world” when it convincingly portrayed “the victory of each individual artist over his servitude,” Ellison could embrace the role of heroic story-teller as an essential underpinning to his literary artistic form.  Malraux’s heroic vocabulary of servitude, revolt, conquest and victory, portrayed art-making and the human condition as decidedly martial affairs, present[ing] performances in all idioms as reflections on the possibilities of heroic action in said, ‘victory over servitude” (Posnoc: 84).  

Ellison, engaged as he was in his early years of writing with the militancy and factionalism of Harlem’s search for a place in the world, later turns to music for answers to address his struggle:  music—and particularly the lyricism of Armstrong’s pre-war swing rhythms—creating a “slightly different sense of time” (Ellison: 8).  “This literary translation and transposition [of Armstrong’s styling] opens a window onto the intellectual landscape where [Ellison] intertwined his musical and social thought” (Posnoc: 82).


Louis Armstrong and the Duke c. 1940
Ellison did not see, in Louis Armstrong’s innovative arrangements, the same shades of the minstrel tradition that drove sophisticated fans toward the progressive styling of Charlie Parker and the other Bebop musicians.  If ever there would be an individual who would raise a voice of objection against Armstrong’s ‘Uncle Tom’ conduct on stage, it would certainly have been Ellison!  Rather, he saw in the man and his music a certain genius to interpret and integrate—what Anderson calls a [representation] of an African-American ‘underworld of sound’…on intimate terms with the white mainstream of American popular music” (Posnoc: 87).  “By rejecting Armstrong they thought to rid themselves of the entertainer’s role.  And by way of getting rid of the role, they demanded, in the name of their racial identity, a purity of status which, by definition, is impossible for the performing artist” (Saturday Review).     

Ralph Ellison was a believer in the Power of One to seek out a leadership role in black society, using it as a platform for affecting change.  While he would ultimately craft a novel in which the protagonist fights a series of lonely battles with various elements of both the white and black establishment, he emerges (or should I say, submerges), in the end, as an ineffectual skeptic, who is not altogether convinced that the black experiment in Harlem can work.  In an unpublished document written during the war years, he complains that, “…we seek leaders of world stature.  We desire to participate in the big dramas with our names in the spot lights.  But because we are confused by those to whom we look for guidance, we are falling into treasonous ways of thinking” (Library: 101/3). Ellison’s early-40s diatribe became a prescient indicator of disappointment and disillusionment, which would later undergird the plotline of Invisible Man.    

But, in the 30s, Ellison was still committed to the belief that intelligence and reason, along with the compelling power of the masses, could effect change and prevail.  The saying goes that if you pinch a skeptic, you will find an angry sentimentalist; and Ellison was a sentimentalist at heart—a believer in community and the long history of pain, oppression and common experience that bind blacks, one-to-another and to a shared community identity.  Ellison’s argument for egalitarianism in black musical styling—spoken through Louis Armstrong’s horn, was personal for him, yet linked through an unspoken and long-established narrative, to the black community as a whole and to its historical roots.

For Herb Jeffries to elect to declare a fictional birthright as a New Orleanian and a Creole, to become a part of this musical tradition, was to do more than just enable his singing.  It was a conscious decision to embrace (and be embraced by) a common link—Ellison’s purity of status—a language of familiarity and reassurance that would later be sacrificed in the adopted language of bebop by the post-war years.

     III. Race Movies:  Black Heroes in a Gray World

After W.D. Griffiths’, Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, a public furor arose out of the depiction of blacks as either humble servants or evil threats to American society. The standard reply to the racist tone in this and other studio-produced films which followed, was to suggest that blacks develop their own cadre of filmmakers.  Beginning in the late 1920s and 30s, this is exactly what they did. The pioneering work of actors like Paul Robeson, Bill Robinson and Stepin Fetchit, working with writers like Aubrey Browser and directors such as Oscar Micheaux (who raised funds for his first film, The Homesteader, from a group of Oklahoma farmers, while on a book tour) resulted in a growing number of independently-produced black films during this period.  The genre, referred to as race films or race movies, consisted of films produced for an all-
blackaudience, featuring black casts. In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced before the era ended in the early `50s.

“Despite the rapid growth of the new black movie audience, particularly after World War I, a number of unfortunate events halted the burgeoning black film industry.  A flu epidemic in 1923 had a devastating effect, closing many ghetto theaters and amplifying the problem of distribution.  The expense of sound equipment needed to support the arrival of ‘talkies’ put pressure on other struggling movie houses.  Finally, the Depression finished off all but the sturdiest.”

“During the Depression, independent black films for black audiences were being made almost entirely by white moviemakers; thus, the underground movement went into a bizarre second phase.  The new films concentrated on major Hollywood genres: mystery, melodrama, boy-meets-girl love stories, musicals and westerns.  White writers and directors, using pseudonyms, constructed the vehicles.  It was in this context—and at this time—that Jed Buell produced Jeffries first film, Harlem on the Prairie” (Ebony: 43-44).

As James Murray wrote, in 1938 another white backer, the brothers, Goldberg, of Herald Pictures, and their black movie company, Negro Marches On, backed Jeffries in Bronze Buckaroo.  “Jack and Bert Goldberg held a condescending view of their task, ‘to make movies with plenty of singing and dancing or drama depicting Negro life in the typical Negro spirit.’  But, in spite of this ostensibly racist view, they reached out to talented students, at schools such as Tuskegee and Hampton institutes, and Howard University, allowing them to study and work at their studios—and at a fair wage for the time. The Goldbergs understood that the key to the movie business was distribution, and they carefully mapped their audience—thirteen million blacks in about 500 theaters, plus those mid-day and midnight screenings of black films (note: origin of the term, ‘midnight ramble’)  that some southern white theaters would allow, with seating in the balcony, only” (Murray: 12-13).


'Colored' entrance, Belzoni, MS (1939)
“Even when blacks could view films at white theaters at selected times, most still preferred ghetto movie houses, where they could ‘give free reign to their feelings and impulses.’ The sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier has said that it was in these ghetto theaters, some battered and broken down, others partially heated or ventilated, that black audiences felt most comfortable, because they were with their own people.  In this respect the black market cinema was a triumph of sorts.  The films today might appear dated or naïve, but they were a source of pride to black America” (Bogle: 109).

Donald Bogle notes that it was customary during that era of so-called ‘race movies’ to use coded language in film title.  Words as Sepia, Tan, Copper, Exotic, Mahogany, and Harlem let fans know they would be seeing all-black entertainers on screen.  The use of the term, ‘Harlem’ in the title was not only code for the fact that the film would present a black cast, but it also served as a metaphor for an experiential bond that would link movie-goers with the action and players on the screen in ways that a white audience could never know.

With more all-black theaters opening in urban ghettos, like New York, Detroit and Chicago throughout the 30s, an expanding black audience was anxious for black movies. However, many films during this period—particularly those backed by white (and mostly Jewish) monies pursued the theme of ‘passing’—that is, developing story lines around negroes light enough to pass for white.  Whether wishful thinking on the part of producers, or reflective of a preoccupation by black America at the time, this pernicious, Great American Norm, lurked behind the scenes in the collective imaginations of movie makers and movie goers, alike” (Bogle: 105).


According to John Langellier, director of publications and productions for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, “While Herb Jeffries was undoubtedly the first black singing cowboy; he was not the first black actor to be in a western. During the silent era, there had been a handful of black westerns (made by African American-owned movie companies) and produced chiefly for segregated audiences" (Langellier: interview).  The earliest was a 1919 film from Oscar Micheaux, called The Homesteader, and a 1921 film featuring rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett, The Bull Dog. There was also a comedy short called, A Chocolate Cowboy, from 1925. But, fortunately for Herb Jeffries, by the time he made Harlem on the Prairie, talking pictures had long since worked out their technical problems.  And although most critics regarded his black westerns as ‘B’ movies, Jeffries soon demonstrated that he could be a marginally-competent actor, that his films could appeal to both white and black audiences--and that they couldmake money.


Herb Jeffries c. 1995 (age 83)
     IV. The Hero Unmasked: The ‘Bronze Buckaroo’ Wore a White Hat!

‘Black’ singing cowboy, Herbert Jeffery is, in fact, white and Italian. He was born, Humberto Alesandro Valentino, in Detroit.  His father was Sicilian and his mother was Irish (O’Dell).   His great grandfather, stationed in Ethiopia in the mid-19th century by the Italian government, married an Ethiopian; so Jeffries could, in fact, claim to be one-eighth black.  At the age of 19, in 1931, Jeffries spontaneously declared himself to be ‘Creole,’ a mixed-race, New Orleanian, in order to get his first singing gig with an all-black jazz band.  In that moment, he also committed himself to life as a ‘colored’ man, during one of the worst times in U.S. civil rights history. Yet his enhanced ‘bronze’ complexion, good looks and singing ability afforded him opportunities in black entertainment that might not have been available to him in white Hollywood.

When Jeffries made his first western in 1937, America was still segregated and opportunities for black actors in Hollywood were limited. It was an era when black performers were usually relegated to stereotypic roles, often as buffoons or domestics. But Herb Jeffries was nobody's fool and nobody's servant. He viewed himself as an heroic figure, a black cowboy, performing the same Wild West’ deeds that white cowboys, like Tom Mix or Gene Autry, did.  He rescued people in trouble, defeated the bad guys, and won the heart of the beautiful girl.  And he brought his own debonair style to the roles he played.  The critics who wrote about him said he was “handsome and athletic,” and it is not surprising that young black movie fans of the 1930s adored him.


Jeffries made a conscious decision, while still in his 20s, to carry the weight of racial discrimination on his shoulders, possibly for the rest of his life. He could have easily assumed the Caucasian mantle, living and working comfortably as an entertainer, somewhere in the mid-West.  The world considered him white and he chose to opt out of that label.  Having been discovered by Louis Armstrong in a Chicago club, it was more than a matter of economic expedience that caused him to declare himself ‘Creole,’ in order to land a singing job with an all-black orchestra. He later said, “by the time I started making cowboy movies, I was considered too light to be Negro and to well-known to be white.  Hollywood saw me as very marketable and just fixed me up.  I gave blacks something they could believe in. I feel good when I walk down the street today. I chose to live my life as a person of color.  I have a right to call myself a colored person, because that’s what I am.”

When Alain Locke wrote, The New Negro; Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, in 1925, he could not know the economic hardships that the Depression would impose on Harlem’s dreams of greatness.  His aesthetic vision for the city and its people would, nevertheless, animate the writings of intellectuals like Ellison, who would confront the social realities of the 1930s. While, in his day, Locke could attempt to predict the lofty cultural contribution that politically-based race relations would have on a global “mission of rehabilitating the race in world esteem from the loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible. Harlem, as we shall see […] is the home of the Negro’s` Zionism’” (Sundquist: 170), he could not possibly predict the debilitating effects of urban poverty and racial prejudice that America’s “moral creed” would continue to exact on minorities for decades still to come.

Locke cautions against attending to the “new intellectuals [there, among the ‘physically restless’] the ‘race radicals’ and realists who have broken with the old epoch of philanthropic guidance, sentimental appeal, and protest.  But are we after all only reading into the stirrings of the sleeping giant the dreams of the agitator?  The answer is in the migrating peasant.  It is in the ‘man farthest down’ who is most active in getting up” (Sundquist: 164).  Later in his essay, he extols the power of black artistic endowment (“music especially”) as “[offering the possibility of] our greatest rehabilitation [in the opinion of blacks and whites, alike].”  Locke could not yet know, nor adequately account for, the profound positive impact that race movies would have on the black psyche—then, in its nascent phase.

But, in an extraordinary, easily-overlooked statement, Locke briefly alludes to a shared connection between the white and non-white world.  He infers volumes about a rarely-discussed, inexorable link between two essential elements of the movie entertainment business—black entertainers and Jewish investment interests, which largely supported the emerging race film industry.  In just a few words, he addresses a theme that has bound these two peoples in an historical struggle, reaching back hundreds—if not thousands— of years.  He says, “As with the Jew, persecution is making the Negro international” (Sundquist: 170).  With these few words, he addresses an infrequently-discussed affinity between Jews and blacks, keenly defined by a shared sense of political repression and social stigmatism.


The inherent contradiction of Jeffries’s racial identity held a mirror up to question of our definition of ‘race,’ then, and now.  It underscored a central theme in Ellison’s novel: “that the destinies of white and black America were, and always had been, indissolubly bound to one another” (Posnoc: 3)  While Ellison wrote later, in a collection of essays (Going to the Territory, 1986), that “American identity is fundamentally mulatto” (Posnoc: 13), the author’s earlier preoccupation with the question of ‘what is black and what is redemptive about our story?’ occupied a prominent place in his writings. 

The protagonist’s task in the paint factory (Invisible Man) brought home the issue of the power and ubiquity of ‘white culture.’  Particularly relevant to the Jeffries story was the moment when Kimbro came down to inspect the paint-mixing job:

“I watched with a sense of unbelief as he rubbed his thumb over the sample, handed it back and left without a word.”

“I looked at the paint slab.  It appeared the same: a gray tinge glowed through the whiteness, and Kimbro failed to detect it.. I stared for a minute, wondering if I were seeing things, inspected another and another.  All were a brilliant white diffused with gray.  I closed my eyes for a moment and looked again and still no change.  Well, I thought, as long as he’s satisfied…”

“But I had a feeling something had gone wrong, something far more important than the paint…” (Ellison: 205)

Ellison’s world was bathed in white paint and the conspiratorial implications of that fact dominated his narrative.  Kimbro’s ‘ten drops of black dope,’ stirred carefully into each can, were intended to intensify the brightness of the mix.  In its allegorical context, Ellison’s black identity was being subsumed—or swallowed up—by white culture.  By contrast, Jeffries’s perspective on hematological power-politics is, particularly today, eye-opening and refreshing, especially given the fact that he was making his life choice during the same period that Ellison was struggling with related questions.  Well into his 80s, Jeffries commented in a 1995 video-taped interview: 

“If four drops of black blood is so potent that it can change the way all the rest of you see me, than it must be some kind of super blood.  The only thing I regret, given all the names they call people of race…mulatto, and what have you…is that I wish I’d had more of that blood.”  

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Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte
Epilogue: The Supreme Court ruled on a Sherman Antitrust Act case brought before them in 1948 (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.).  In its decision, the court ordered the elimination of 'block booking.'  Under block booking, independent (unaffiliated) theater owners were forced to take large numbers of a studio's pictures, sight unseen. Those studios could then parcel out second-rate productions, along with A-class features and star vehicles, which made both development and distribution operations more economical and profitable.  The element of the system involving the purchase of unseen pictures was known as 'blind bidding.' 

With Hollywood's conversion to sound film in the late 1920s, block booking increasingly became standard practice: in order to get access to a studio's attractive ‘A’ pictures, many theaters were obliged to rent the company's entire output for a season, even films not yet made.  The 'race film' industry, nevertheless, managed to expand in this anti-competitive environment, based largely on the fact they targeted a different audience, not part of the Hollywood demographic. 

The court ordered a separation of theater holdings from production and distribution.  Without control over block booking, studios feared that they could no longer force theaters to buy up to 400 movies each year.  In anticipation of mass profit-loss, studios cut production schedules and terminated contracts with actors, producers, directors and other staff. Newly unemployed artists began pursuing careers in television.  As popular movie actors transitioned from the silver screen to the television screen, viewers followed their favorite artists to the new medium.  In 1951, almost all cities with television stations saw a significant increase in movie theater closures, corresponding with a simultaneous increase in television viewership.  The substantial rise in television’s popularity during the 1950s can be largely attributed to the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw block booking.

By the late 40s, established black-owned and/or operated film production companies may have benefited from this ruling.  But, by then, race films were on the wane, with the stage door left slightly ajar for a new generation of black stars like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey.  They earned their future reputations on both the big, Hollywood screen and the small, round one working its way into living rooms all across America.   -RF

Banner Illustrations: Segregated Movie Theaters in the South (l-to-r)- Gem Theater, Waco, TX. (1939), photo, Russell Lee; Saenger Theater, Pensacola, FL. (c.1935), photo, unknown; Negro man entering movie theater by ‘colored’ entrance, Belzoni, MS, in the Delta area (1939). Photo: Marion Post Wolcott; Rex Theater, Leland, MS. Photo: Dorothea Lange.