Herb Jeffries, The Black Singing Cowboy Movie Star, Dies At 100 (And The Question of Identity...)
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Herb Jeffries, The Black Singing Cowboy Movie Star, Dies At 100 (And The Question of Identity...)

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The news was announced yesterday that singer and actor Herb Jeffries passed away on Sunday at the

ripe old age of 100. With a career that spanned over 60 years, starting in the

early 1930’s, Jeffries was still performing until the mid-1990’s and made his

mark with his signature smooth voice, appearing in nightclubs, concert halls, television, and

dozens of recordings, and at one time, was a featured singer with Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

But among Jeffries’

biggest claims to fame were the series of western “race” films he starred in, that were made

for black filmgoers during the late 1930’s: Harlem Rides the Range, The Bronze Buckaroo, Two Gun Man from Harlem, and Harlem

on the Prairie. All the films were shot on location on Murray’s

Dude’s Ranch, a popular black owned vacation theme ranch in California at that time.

Conceived as

an answer to the popular white singing cowboy phenomenon, for example Gene Autry, as seemly primitive and obviously

low budget as there were, the films were important in that they set to serve as a reminder

of the extraordinary contributions of black cowboys during the formation of the

West, from the mid 19th

century to the early 20th century. In fact 1 out of every four cowboys

during this period was non-white – either African American or Hispanic – a documented

historical fact ignored, as expected, in most westerns movies.

Born in Detroit just over a century ago as Umberto

Alexander Valentino, the son of an Irish woman and an Italian/Ethiopian

father, Jeffries, though bi-racial, never once denied his black heritage and

always self-identified as being black.

As he was

once quoted: “I’m not passing, I never have, I never will.

For all these years I’ve been wavering about the color question on the blanks.

Suddenly I decided to fill in the blank the way I look and feel. It was an admirable

attitude which many feel most likely curtailed his career, and, as a consequence, resulted in Jeffries losing out on bigger opportunities.

In fact, Jeffries would always claim that, back in the 1930’s, 20th Century Fox wanted to sign him to a long term movie

contract on the condition that he claimed he was South American, but he refused.

However the

idea that there were Hollywood movie stars back in the day, who passed for white

(the subject of Julie Dash’s 1982 short

film Illusions) was not unusual. In

fact there have been constant and still lingering, though unsubstantiated, rumors

that a few female stars of Hollywood’s golden age such, as Dorothy Lamour, Ava Gardner

and Dinah Shore, all Southern born,

were light skinned black or bi-racial women passing for white. 

Nevertheless it is not far fetched at all to believe that many movie stars of the period kept secrets

about their real identities, just as many other black people did in real life during that time.

This gives

us Jeffries’ true lasting legacy as

someone who never hid nor tried to escape his heritage, but instead embraced it.

Here’s Herb Jeffries

in one of his singing cowboy race films, Harlem Rides the Range, from 1939.

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