"The Colour of the Old West"
Gregory V. Boulware
Black and White Westerns on Television and in the Movies.
One Saturday afternoon, while viewing old Black and White Westerns on television, I wondered about the real cowboys of the 17 and 1800’s – their true physical makeup…their true character(s) and lifestyles. I wondered why the Black Cowboys were not depicted…or talked about…on TV. I wondered why we as youngsters cheered for the character actors like John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Buster Crabb, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and many others who came to the rescue of the homesteaders. We cheered the cavalry with their trumpets blaring as they rode in to save the day. They saved the forts, the women and children, the towns-folk, and rescued the herds every Saturday and Sunday at the movies and on TV.
They also killed and massacred the Indians…The Native Americans…The Real Americans who have…(the Original Home Land Security) been fighting terrorism since 1492. They, the good-guys, killed hundreds of thousands in the name of posterity and the betterment of white America…and we cheered.
We as young and Black movie-goers, book readers, and television viewers cheered for the good-guys in the white hats who got the girl and rode off into the sunset…we cheered for the all-white cast of heroes and heroines. Were there no heroes of color? When Chuck Conners played The Great Chieftain Geronimo, we cheered. Charles Bronson characterized Chato…we cheered. We emphatically wept for the Cheyenne when they were captured and herded. Why did we not stop supporting the all-white cast of characters then…especially when we became aware that there was a major difference in the racial makeup?
Later on, in the 60’s, we got Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte of “Buck and The Preacher. They were two Black characterizations of pioneers who communicated with the Native Americans. Honest trade and respect for one another prevailed in this kinship. Brother Jim Brown was another role model that we all looked up to. He got the girl and some freedom too. Albeit, they would manage to find a way to kill the Brother off before the picture ended. Where was the commonplace Black Cowboy(s) – these heroes who taught the white cowboy(s) how to be cowboys? They taught them how to ride and rope…to steer wrestle and bulldog. Current and past rodeo shows rarely have Black Cowboy(s) along on their junkets…Black Cowboys had to create their own rodeo show(s) yesterday and today. The white west would have us believe there weren’t any Black Cowboys, only slaves…and we believed them.
They told us that Bill Pickett and Willis Meade (remember Lonesome Dove?) were white while they have been known to actually be Black…and we believed them. Have you ever seen movies and TV shows where the army troop and wagon trains use scouts who were always White? Did you stop and wonder how these white frontiersmen got to know the lay of the land? How were they able to communicate with Native American War Parties when all they’ve ever done was bring slaughter, ruin, and death to these noble people?
The Black and (so-called) Red Man were in fact, kinsmen! Did you ever wonder about your buddy who told you about his or her Indian relatives…their Grandparents…their Great-Grandparents? Many of us have passed it off as believing they wanted to be identified, as other than Black - they did not want to be Black. Folks would say things like – “they ain’t Indian, they just don’t wanna be Black Folks cause they head is nappy and they wants to be like the white folks.” We’ve heard many claim to be children of the Cherokee, Seminole, or Black Feet. Many of us didn’t believe it…guess what? I’ve got news for you…we were wrong – dead wrong! To not believe them was another of the misleading paths and disenfranchised heritage denied to us by European descendents who claimed this land as their own. We as Black Americans have more of an Indian bloodline than you’d d think…or care to believe.
William L. Katz, the author of forty books, a scholar in residence at Teachers College, Columbia University, Consultant to the Smithsonian Institute of New York City, (http://www.williamkatz.com/) has done extensive research into the history of “Black Indians.” Mr. Katz’s work includes studies and writings on The Black West, Black Women of the Old West, and African American Slave Resistance. He has some enlightening information and data that substantiates our Red, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and White bloodlines.
The Old West, as told by White European American history books, refused to acknowledge the fact of Black contributions (except slave labor) to the West in America as well as other facets of nation building efforts and endeavors.
The names of Black individuals in many old (and new) western movies and TV shows were in use…but given to white characters. William “Bill” Pickett (“The Dusky Demon”), Bose (Boise) Ikard, George Monroe, William Robinson, Willis Meade – a.k.a. Willis Peoples of Meade, Kansas, and Pvt. George Washington were just a few famous Black frontiersmen-pioneers graced with name usage by white movie and TV actors and film makers.
“Today, most Black Indians do not live in the forests or on the broad plains of the U.S. Most do not inhabit government reservations set aside for the Native Americans anymore than most Indians do. To be sure, they crowd, for example, the Shine Cock Reservations on New York’s Long Island. But many more walk the crowded streets of nearby New York City. They are found in abundance in the Cement Caverns of Boston, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Detroit,” according to Katz.
Tourists who visit Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, can see the memorial to Black Cowboy Bill Pickett in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Known as the “Dusky Demon”, Pickett is credited with inventing the sport of “Bulldogging” and was a star of the 101 Ranch Show. Bill Miller, owner of the ranch, considered Pickett the best cowhand he ever knew. Pickett died in 1935. The “Goodnight Trail” was the route by which huge herds of steer were taken. Charles Goodnight, a white man, owned the herds. The trail led from Texas through New Mexico to the railroad centers in Colorado. Boise Ikard was the cowboy that Goodnight depended on most to get his herd to market. The Black Cowboy not only saved the herd owners life but the lives of an entire crew of cowboys. He saved the cowboy crew when a herd of cattle became agitated and suddenly stampeded. Goodnight erected a memorial to Ikard, his friend, after his death in 1929.
The Pony Express was started in 1860. It enabled the mail to go west as far as San Francisco, California. Letters from the East went as far as the railroad could carry them, St. Joseph Missouri. From that point, a series of expert riders carried the mail by relays all the way to Sacramento, California. Both rider and horse traveled about seventy-five miles. They needed to have great endurance in order to provide the service. George Monroe, one of the Black Pony Express Riders, carried the mail from Merced to Mary Sosa, California. Another Black Rider was William Robinson. His run was from Stockton to the gold mining regions. The sight of a Pony Express Rider was a welcomed sight. It did not matter whether the rider was White or Black. Mail from home was a most welcomed sight in all parts of the west. Brother Willis “Meade” Peoples was a Black Rancher from Meade, Kansas who gained local fame when he tracked down and killed the infamous predator, “Two-Toes.” “Two-Toes,” was a wolf that killed many cattle in that area. Private George Washington was a member of the famous All-Black 10th Cavalry. He was deputized to join in the capture of “Billy the Kid.” Washington persuaded Billy to meet with the lawman, Lew Wallace.
These true to life heroes and American contributors could and should be role models for all - Black, White, Asian, Latino, Mexican, Native American, etc - children and adults alike as opposed to an all-white cast of characters.
“Citizens celebrate this country’s daring break from colonial rule, and rejoice in the plucky minutemen who challenged the British at Lexington and Concord. But a month before those historic skirmishes on the path to freedom, other Americans were pursuing the same goal. Slaves in Ulster County, New York, planned a massive armed rising. Perhaps they had heard the exciting patriotic talk about liberty and independence. Their liberation plot involved slaves in Kingston, Hurley, Marble town, and upwards of five hundred Native Americans. Unlike the minutemen, their shot was not heard around the world, their bold conspiracy never found its way into the American or European history books.”
March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a Black Natick Indian, stepped dramatically into U.S. history in Boston, says Katz. “He was the first to fall in the Boston massacre. Attucks was transformed into a Nantucket Indian. It seemed wrong to place an African American with Native American blood at the first moment of American Independence,” according to Benson J. Lossing. The historians of America and Europe knew African Americans had a history and refused to acknowledge or record it. With few weapons, alliances between Black and (the so-called) Red people in the woods challenged the footholds Europeans built in the western hemisphere, says Katz. “Using guerrilla tactics that would become famous in China and Viet Nam in our own country, Red and Black People defeated superior numbers and better equipped foreign armies. This they managed while moving their families out of harm’s way. These dark liberators often proved that European rule in the Americas amounted to a thin coat of white paint over a seething Dark Empire.”
At the movies, generations of young minds have been trained to think of life on the American Frontier as a saga of white gallantry – John Wayne cowboys whipped Indians to give us the USA while children of every race rejoiced in the version of the frontier served up each Saturday afternoon.
Concurring with Katz, I too believe in the real wilderness where two Dark Complected People met and often united. They were not driven together by any special affinity based on Skin Colour – European enemies unwittingly arranged the meetings…exploited both. Mr. Katz and I also agree that the retelling of our (American) Western History, Africans and Native Americans, separately and together, fought bravely for an America they knew was also theirs…ours. Perhaps the story of African Americans and Native Americans was trampled underfoot by their hard-riding European foes. Sidney Poitier, Mario Van Peebles, and other great Black and Native American Actors, Producers, TV and Movie people got it right – The American and European History Books can get it right too.
Til Next Time...
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