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.