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Friday, April 12, 2024

Transitions – Blacks in Westerns

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Recently, I was sharing a modern-day Western script with a film agent, and he asked if I liked Westerns, which I do. As a Black woman, he doubted that I would like that genre. I like traditional Westerns because right and wrong they are usually relatively straightforward. Like most Americans, the agent probably was unaware that after the Civil War, former slaves headed West for the same opportunities that other settlers did — a new life of independence and self-reliance.

The early TV, I remember, had only two Westerns with non-white regular characters: Tonto on “The Lone Ranger” and two Asians on “Have Gun Will Travel.”

My first introduction to an accurate Western was Sidney Poitier’s and Harry Belafonte’s “Buck and The Preacher.” The Exoduster Movement in the 1870s inspired that story — the first large-scale migration of Blacks from the South to Kansas. But that film was preceded by dozens of all-Black Westerns, including the 1921 “The Bull-Dogger” and “Harlem on The Prairie,” a 1937 musical Western. 

Historians now estimate that 20-to-25 percent of cowboys in the American West were Black. Black Civil War veterans, aka Buffalo Soldiers, helped “win” the West — as documented in Frederick Remington’s artwork.

Bass Reeves, a lawman in Oklahoma, is credited with over 3,000 arrests, and evidence attributes him to be the basis of the radio show and TV series “The Lone Ranger.” (Burton, Art T.; Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves; Bison Books, 2008.) Prime released a limited series on Bass Reeves last November.
My husband’s favorite Western, “Rin Tin Tin,” had no Blacks.

In my senior year in college, I finally learned what was missing from my earlier history books, which I am now proud to share. We are a diverse nation, indeed. Although less popular than they once were, Westerns garner an increased audience, and their characters are more representative.

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Barbara Blomquist
Barbara Blomquist
Barbara Blomquist is a Naperville resident, wife, mother, quilter, and screenwriter. Contact her at BWBLomquist@aol.com.
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