Is it just me, or does the image of the cowboy feel Whiter than White? Yet, in actual history, 1 out of 4 cowboys was Black. The Wild West was surprisingly welcoming in some ways to African Americans, except when it came to interracial sex. And sex may be why it now feels like cowboys were all one skin tone. How did fears of miscegenation ultimately lead to the whitewashing of the Western genre?
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[clips from Django Unchained]
Is it just me, or does the image of the cowboy feel Whiter than White*?
I mean, to me at least, when I see a movie like Django Unchained, from which we just heard clips, it feels like reversing the genre. It’s turning it on its head when Jamie Foxx goes all cowboy lead slinger.
(lead slinger: a gunfighter)
Yet, in actual history, 1 out of every 4 cowboys was Black (Hunter, p. 153). It wasn’t just Black and White either. Perhaps around 12% of cowboys were Mexican (Porter, p. 112). So, the image of the cowboy as Whiter than White is simply not right.
A movie like Django Unchained feels like reversing the genre by foregrounding a Black cowboy, but in terms of actual history, it’s not a reversal at all. It’s arguably more accurate.
For example, there was renowned wrangler Nat Love, who wrote in his autobiography: “Mounted on my favorite horse, my long horsehide lariat near my hand, and my trusty guns in my belt and the broad plains stretching away for miles and miles, every foot of which I was familiar with, I felt I could defy the world. What man with the fire of life and youth and health in his veins could not rejoice in such a life?” (Love, p. 68-69)
I mean, does it get any more cowboy than that?
One in four was Black, but that’s not all. In addition, the typical cattle-handling outfit was mixed. You heard me right: the typical outfit was mixed. It’s not like there were 3 all-White outfits for every all-Black outfit, and the numbers come out in the average or something. No, no, no. All-Black outfits did exist, but they were the exception, not the rule. Mixed outfits were the norm (Porter, p. 112).
So, Black cowboys were not only common, but they rode side-by-side with their White counterparts.
And while it is true that Black cowboys struggled to achieve the highest rank of trail boss or ranch boss, they filled most every other position. And believe it or not, in most outfits, White and Black cowboys even received equal pay (Porter, p. 121).
How could that be? I mean, we’re talking about a time right after the Civil War. Two seconds before, African American slaves had received no pay at all. And the Emancipation Proclamation did not mandate equal pay; that had to wait till 1964, and we are still struggling to achieve it in practice even today.
So, how could there be a job with equal pay so soon after the Civil War, and out of all the places, how could that place be the land of the supposedly Whiter-than-White cowboy, the Wild West?
As historian Kenneth W. Porter summarily declares, African Americans “enjoyed greater opportunities for a dignified life there than anywhere else in the United States” (p. 124-125).
That just doesn’t fit the received image of the frontier, does it?
Now, there was discrimination on the frontier, even among cowboys. But that discrimination played out in interesting ways. In this highly masculine profession, there was relatively little discrimination out on the trail, where men were among other men, and what mattered most was skill and being a straight arrow.
(straight arrow: an honest, forthright person)
But when cowboys rode into town, it was a different story. In the presence or potential presence of White women, suddenly things flipped upside down (Porter, p. 123).
Anxieties about miscegenation, or interracial coupling, turned the surprisingly-mixed West into a segregated society in town.
Moreover, this same miscegenation-phobia only increased as the frontier closed at the end of the 19th century, reaching a fever pitch in the early 20th century – just as Western films started appearing. And then what do you suppose happened to the image of the cowboy?
What’s going on here? Did miscegenation fears whitewash the Western genre? Is that how the cowboy became Whiter-than-White? What was the West really like for men and women of African descent, and how were their stories forgotten?
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
I’d like to thank our Patreon patron Tim Szeliga for making this episode possible.
Folks, this is the fourth episode in our ongoing series, Sex in the Wild West. We’ve looked at the American frontier from several different angles already: men, women, and even cross-dressers. Now it’s time to tackle race, because as we’ve already seen in our introduction, race and sex get tangled up rather quickly. Just as we saw in our earlier series Sex in the Third Reich, where Nazi racial policy hinged upon Nazi sexual policy, so too was race and sex bound up together intimately in the American Wild West.
Now, race of course covers not just Black and White, but also Native Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and a whole lot more. Today, we’re going to focus primarily on African Americans, but tensions reverberated across the racial landscape.
Whitewashing the Western
We’ve been fed corral dust, folks.
(corral dust: lies and tall tales)
It seems the Western genre has been whitewashed.
I mean, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m showing my bias when I say it feels like the cowboy is Whiter than White, but I don’t think it’s just me. Here’s a Quora forum where someone asks exactly the same question: “Why do people think that cowboys were all white?” (Quora) And here’s a Guardian article entitled “Where Have All the Black Cowboys Gone?” (Billson). So, I don’t think it’s just me. There really is a sense out there that cowboys were all one skin tone.
So why would this be? Well, of course, there are many reasons. For one thing, you know, modern racial identities in America have chosen to foreground certain aspects and let others fade. Parts of Black culture today, like hip hop, tend to project a very urban streets kind of lifestyle even though there are rural Black folks too, and parts of White culture, like Country Western music, tend toward the opposite. So, the idea of a Black cowboy kinda runs contrary to stereotypical assumptions these days. That’s certainly part of it.
But I think there’s more to it. Much more, in fact. I think the Western genre itself has been whitewashed.
But what do I mean by “whitewashed”? Well, I don’t mean Black cowboys have been absent from films. They haven’t; rather, somehow they’ve been made invisible.
See, unlike male-to-female cross-dressers, Black cowboys were not excised from the silver screen. On the contrary, they are there in spades. With a quick google search, I managed to turn up nearly 40 Western movies and TV shows featuring Black characters, and even that list is nowhere near complete.
What’s more, they’re not just modern flicks like Django Unchained or the very recent 2021 film The Harder They Fall, which features a nearly all-Black cast. Here’s one from 1939 entitled The Bronze Buckaroo starring Herb Jeffries:
[Clip from The Bronze Buckaroo: “Gun, I wanna send a message and I don’t want no answers” “Special delivery. You found the right address”] (50:49)
Truth be told, Black cowboys have appeared in Westerns all throughout the 20th century. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way. Why?
Well, one problem is Black characters have often been given minor roles peripheral to the plot. Or they’ve been sidekicks. Or comic relief. Quantity is not quality when it comes to representation in film.
However, that’s not always the case. There have been prominent examples where the quality was there. For example, in the 1992 film Unforgiven, Morgan Freeman fights side by side with Clint Eastwood, gets just as much screen time, and feels like a main character on equal footing. Further back, Woody Strode starred in the 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge with no White counterpart as co-star. And all the way back in 1922, there was already a silent film, now lost, called The Bull-Dogger, starring Black cowboy Bill Pickett as himself. That’s right, he was an actual real cowboy from the Wild West, and he starred as himself in this silent picture.
And yet, somehow, even at that time, Black cowboys were apparently already invisible.
This is poignantly illustrated by a story recalled by actor-singer Herb Jeffries in the 1994 documentary Midnight Ramble. Sometime in the early to mid-1930s, while on tour in Cincinnati, Jeffries came across a young Black boy who was a fan of silver-screen cowboy Tom Mix. The boy, however, was in tears. Here’s how Jeffries tells it:
[clip from Midnight Ramble: “We called him over, and said ‘Hey, did those guys hit you?’ He said ‘No, they’re my friends.’ We said ‘Then what are you crying about?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re playing cowboy and I wanna be Tom Mix, and they won’t let me be Tom Mix because Tom Mix ain’t Black.’ … Little Black children cannot relate in a cowboy picture. Who can they be?”]
Who can they be? They were playing cowboys, and the boy couldn’t be Tom because already, in the eyes of these children, Black folks couldn’t be cowboys. Already in the mid-1930s, cowboys were Whiter than White.
This was just 40 years after the closing of the frontier. A quarter of all cowboys had been Black, and yet just four decades later, they were forgotten. And remember this was just one decade after Bill Pickett starred as himself in the flesh, and yet it seems audiences could not see him. The Black cowboy was already invisible. For these children, cowboys were Whiter than White.
Now, after this experience, Herb Jeffries determined to make cowboy flicks for Black children, and starred in many with titles like Harlem on the Prairie, Two-Gun Man from Harlem, and the one we heard a moment ago, The Bronze Buckaroo. No doubt this bolstered the self esteem of many a Black child. Yet it was clear that these movies were made for a Black audience. When it came to general audience movies, the Black cowboy continued to fade away.
Often, Black historical figures were outright replaced by White characters. For example, the Lone Ranger, who appeared in radio as early as 1933, was likely inspired by real-life deputy marshal Bass Reaves, who was – you guessed it – Black (Burton, p. 14). Nevertheless, the series hero was not presented that way. Now, this was radio mind you, so I suppose there was some leeway for the imagination, but the voice actor was not Black, and when the Lone Ranger did finally appear in film in 1938, he looked just as those children expected: Whiter than White.
Likewise, the 1951 film Tomahawk told the story of Black frontiersman Jim Beckwourth, yet the actor was White. And 1956’s The Searchers, quite possibly the greatest Western movie of all time, was inspired by Black Texan Britt Johnson, yet who was the star? John Wayne.
So, that’s what I mean by “whitewashed.” It’s not that Black cowboys were not there in the films, but that their presence became invisible.
That’s how we arrived at a point where even when a film does feature a Black lead, like Morgan Freeman in The Unforgiven, Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven, Will Smith in Wild Wild West, and so many others, you just don’t think of them when you think of cowboys.
Through a combination of marketing to niche audiences, low-quality character roles, outright replacement by White actors, Black cowboys have become invisible. The White-skinned cowboy is such an automatic assumption that a Black-skinned cowboy feels like reversing the genre. It was true in the 1930s, and it’s true today.
The Western has been whitewashed.
The Black West
So, what exactly was it that was forgotten through this whitewashing process? What was the Wild West really like for Black men and women?
First off, I should be clear by what I mean when I say “cowboy.” Up till this point, I’ve been using it in the rather loose in the cinematic sense to mean pretty much any gun-toting character of the Western genre. But now I want to narrow that to the much more specific historical sense of the profession of cattle-handling on the frontier.
It’s in this sense that 1 out of 4 cowboys were Black. That statistic comes from a study by the Trail Drivers Association, which found from the 1860s to the 1880s there were around 5000 workers in the range-cattle industry, and up to 25% of those workers were African American (Hunter, p. 153).
It’s also in that specific cattle-handler sense that they received equal pay, as historian Kenneth Porter relates:
“Strange though it may seem, there is no clear-cut evidence that Negro cowhands were generally or seriously discriminated against in the matter of wages” (p. 121).
Strange indeed. The cowboy trade was one of the few opportunities of the day where Black men could earn pay equal to their White counterparts.
To be fair, the playing field was not perfectly even. It was rare, for example, that a Black cowboy was ever promoted to the highest rank of trail boss or ranch boss (Porter, p. 118). Also, some sources suggest they might be given harder tasks, like breaking horses for example Porter, p. 114). Finally, few were gunslingers, as they might suffer greater consequences for shooting a White man (Porter, p. 122). So, it’s not like the playing field was perfectly even. However, it was more even than in many other professions of the day.
So, why were there so many Black cowboys, and how were they able to obtain such relatively equal terms?
Well, first of all, after the Civil War, droves of Black folks found themselves newly free and eager to make their way. The frontier represented the same thing to them as it did to others: opportunity. When Reconstruction denied the 40 acres and a mule promised to freed slaves, many looked West. A whole movement called the “Exodusters” migrated West to Kansas, and even greater zeal brought families to the so-called “Promised Land” of Oklahoma (Flamming, p. 74-79). And in Kansas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, they founded Black towns with Black mayors, Black sheriffs, Black businesspeople, Black everything. The all-Black town in the movie The Harder They Fall is not revisionist history; that’s entirely accurate. Black folks settled the West no less than anyone else. And they did so for opportunity.
The second was demand for labor. On the frontier, labor was scarce and employers could not necessarily afford to be choosy. Consequently, Black folks often stood a better chance of getting hired.
The final reason was high-demand skills. Black people often had skills that were especially valuable on the frontier. Many had previously worked with cattle on plantations, and some were excellent hands at horses as well. For example, Addison Jones was famous for breaking wild horses, a dangerous job called “topping” (Porter, p. 116). These were valuable skills in high demand.
Another skill many African Americans brought to the frontier was cooking. That may not sound too glorious, but actually the cook was highly regarded. The quality of food was often what attracted cowboys to one outfit over another, so employers regularly paid cooks higher wages, sometimes up to twice the salary of an ordinary cowhand (Porter, p. 117).
Thus, due to opportunity, labor demands, and valuable skills on offer, African Americans headed West no less than others. The real cowboy trade was by no means Whiter than White. It was every bit a mixed-race affair with Black folks not just present but typical.
But not all Black folks in the West were cowboys. There were also soldiers. Some 180,000 had served in the Civil War, and despite an initial wage gap, by the end they were receiving equal pay as well (Billington, p. 66). When the war ended, many still had years left to go on their commissions, and were sent west. There they acquired the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers.” Popular legend claims this moniker was given them by Native Americans who thought their curly hair resembled buffalo fur, but the true origin of the nickname is unknown (Billington, p. 57). Regardless, they earned a reputation as strong military men, and in at least one case, military women. Cathay Williams cross-dressed as a man in order to join the military, and served two years as Buffalo Soldier William Cathay.
Speaking of women, what was the West like for them? When Black men answered the call “Go West, young man”, Black women too responded. Unfortunately, the prospects for them were not quite as rosy. There were no good equal-pay opportunities like cattle handling or soldiering. Moreover, Black men who were not cowboys or soldiers did often suffer a wage gap, so the average household was more strapped for cash, leading to greater pressure for women to work outside the home. Many found employment as domestics, such as housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and laundresses (Riley, p. 160). Others turned to prostitution, and you might even find all-Black brothels in towns with a large number of Black cowboys or soldiers coming through (p. 172). But examples can be found of women breaking into other trades as well. For example, Emily O. G. Gray opened a furniture workshop in St Anthony, Minnesota (Riley, p. 168). Some opened boarding houses or became real estate brokers (p. 170). And then there were those who took up more rough-and-tumble careers. We already heard about Cathay Williams’ stint as a Buffalo Soldier. In addition, Mary Fields drove stagecoach across California. Henrietta Williams Foster, better known as “Aunt Rittie” herded cattle as a cowgirl in Texas. And Johanna July, a woman of mixed Black and Seminole descent, became a highly sought-after broncopeeler (Gutierrez Venable, p. 63).
(broncopeeler: someone who tames unbroken horses)
Suffice to say that Black women in the West, while clearly disadvantaged, found their way nonetheless.
One surprising silver lining for them was education. Many were quite literate. As they tended to live in towns and cities, they often had better access to schooling than rural White counterparts. Plus, as historian Glenda Riley notes, “black families sometimes chose to educate daughters instead of sons to protect girls from employment exploitation” (p. 170). Once educated, many entered teaching, and some even became nurses, doctors, journalists, and editors.
In short, for both men and women of African descent, the West represented opportunity. While the equality of that opportunity was uneven at best, one could make a go of it. And there were, at least for men, certain jobs where they could earn respect and even equal pay. There were worse places a person could end up. Given the choices on offer within the United States at the time, the West was relatively welcoming.
However, that welcome had its limits. Despite all that has been said so far, the West could also be downright unwelcoming in certain circumstances. In the right places, the amount of melanin in one’s skin, which may have mattered relatively little just moments before, could spark tension. When it came to one subject in particular, anxieties smoldered which could blaze into a fire at the slightest breeze.
That subject was sex.
What did sex have to do with it? How did sex turn the relatively mixed West into a segregated society? And how did it ultimately lead to the whitewashing of the Western genre? That’s what we’re going to explore next. But first, we’ll take a short break, and we’ll be back after this.
Audiodrama: Nat Love, Straight Outta Deadwood
Hey folks, this is normally the part where we have some humorous historical skit, but this time, we’ve got something even better: an audiodrama production of a scene from the only existing autobiography of a real Black cowboy, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.
Nat Love was a former slave taught to read by his father, even though antebellum statutes outlawed Black literacy at the time. After the war, Nat was freed along with all other slaves, and after a short period as a sharecropper, he headed West. His autobiography, published in 1907, tells the tale.
Now, let me tell ya folks, Nat pretty much fulfills the expectations for a raucous cowboy adventure story. He is certainly not above sprinkling in a little of that corral dust (you know, tall tales). It’s enough to make any reader wonder what’s really truth and what’s fiction. Nevertheless, it is a fun tale, and so, here you go. Oh, and fair warning: Nat’s language and comportment is, shall we say, a bit off-color. This was certainly not the age of politically correctness, to put it lightly.
“After the buffalo hunt we were sent down in Old Mexico to get a herd of horses…. I left the boys to continue with the herd, while I made for the nearest saloon, which happened to be located in one of the low mud houses of that country, with a wide door and clay floor. As the door was standing open, and looked so inviting I did not want to go to the trouble of dismounting so urging my horse forward, I rode in the saloon, first however, scattering with a few random shots the respectable sized crowd of dirty Mexicans hanging around as I was in no humor to pay for the drinks for such a motley gathering. Riding up to the bar, I ordered keller for myself and a generous measure of pulky for my horse, both popular Mexican drinks.” p. 72)
I am not kidding, folks, that’s literally what it says here. He rides up to the bar, shoots off his guns, and demands a drink for himself and his horse. That’s Nat Love.
Later in the story, he finds himself in the Dakota Territory, and tells how he earns the nickname “Deadwood Dick.”
“We went on our way to Deadwood with our herd, where we arrived on the 3rd of July, 1876, eight days after the Custer massacre took place.” p. 92
“The next morning, July 4th, the gamblers and mining men made up a purse of $200 for a roping contest between the cow boys that were then in town… six of them being colored cow boys, including myself. Our trail boss was chosen to pick out the mustangs from a herd of wild horses just off the range, and he picked out twelve of the most wild and vicious horses that he could find. … It seems to me that the horse chosen for me was the most vicious of the lot. Everything being in readiness, the ’45’ cracked and we all sprang forward together, each of us making for our particular mustang. I roped, threw, tied, bridled, saddled and mounted my mustang in exactly nine minutes from the crack of the gun. The time of the next nearest competitor was twelve minutes and thirty seconds. This gave me the record and championship of the West, which I held up to the time I quit the business in 1890, and my record has never been beaten.” (p. 85-86)
Nat goes on to win a shooting cost against the likes of Stormy Jim, Powder Horn Bill, and White Head, who was part Native American.
“The name of Deadwood Dick was given to me by the people of Deadwood, South Dakota, July 4, 1876, after I had proven myself worthy to carry it, and after I had defeated all comers in riding, roping, and shooting, and I have always carried the name with honor since that time.” (p. 88)
And that’s how Nat Love became Deadwood Dick. Or rather, one of the Deadwood Dicks. It’s not clear which of the many who claimed that nickname was the model for the hero of Wheeler’s 1885 fictional Western novel Deadwood Dick on Deck and its many sequels. Perhaps it was none other than Black cowboy Nat Love.
Alright, we’re back. Now it’s time for us to look at the other side of Wild West, the not so friendly frontier, and how anxieties smoldered, ready to flare up at a moment’s notice.
The Not So Black West
First, it is important to recognize that none of what has been said so far means folk in the West were not racist. They most certainly were. Even if we ignore for the moment the rampant racism against Native Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, and so many others, and focus solely on Black-White relations, there is plenty to remark upon. Black men may have been granted respect and equal pay in certain jobs, and Black women may have been able to make their way and even obtain education slightly more easily than some White women, but that does not a fair society make.
Slavery was only recently extinguished, and had been present in the West. Texas had been a slave state, while Utah and New Mexico territories had experimented with it as well. Meanwhile, even free states and territories did not necessarily consider all races equal, and slavery was by no means the only institution of race-based discrimination. Another was anti-miscegenation law.
Miscegenation refers to coupling between races. Anti-miscegenation laws in North America date back as far back as the 17th century in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland (Battalora). Nearly all US states passed similar laws at one point in history. As for the West, only 4 states repealed these laws prior to 1888 – Iowa, Washington, Kansas, and New Mexico. The rest would keep them well into the mid-20th century.
The target of these wasn’t the mixing of races per se. For example, unions between Blacks and Asians were rarely a concern. Rather, they were specifically about the mixing of the White race with non-Whites.
This led to some peculiar mental gymnastics. In order to legislate against the mixing of the White race, lawmakers had to define Whiteness, which had been a moving target all throughout North American history. In the 18th century, Ben Franklin had considered only Britons and Germans from Saxony to be White (Franklin). By the mid-19th century, the circle of Whiteness had expanded to include most people of European descent, though the Irish were still a bit dubious, and Mexicans were White by law but not by custom.
Whiteness became even messier when it came to those of mixed descent. One Arizona law on the books around the turn of the century forbade “all marriages of persons of Caucasian blood, or their descendants, with negroes, Mongolians or Indians, and their descendants” (quoted in Hardaway, p. 379). This left mixed-race folk able to legally marry no one. Their White ancestry prevented them from marrying non-Whites, while their non-White ancestry prevented them from marrying Whites, nor even other mixed-race people. In the end, the law left mixed-race folk up a tree.
(up a tree: in a difficult situation)
This sort of absurdity pervaded anti-miscegenation legislation, but it did not stop it. Over the second half of the 19th century, at least 15 Western states and territories passed laws against miscegenation. This was based on deep-rooted anxieties endemic to the culture, in the West no less than elsewhere. And this can be seen in customs dictating who could do what, when, and where.
Out on the trail, relations between Black and White cowboys were relatively peaceable, partly because it was mostly men among men. Even though there were female cowboys, they were rare, and cattle work was so male-coded that anxieties about miscegenation rarely flared. However, in town, it was a different story. Best buddies on the trail might treat each other quite differently in the presence, or even the potential presence, of White ladies.
For example, if two cowboys, one White and one Black, went to a restaurant, the one would be seated without question, but other might have to order his food from the back door and eat it in the kitchen or outside sitting on a hitching rail. Historian Kenneth Porter says this is “partly because of the symbolic value attached to sitting down and eating together… but principally because women might be guests in the dining room or cafe” (Porter, p. 124). Here we see a system of segregation normally associated with the deep South, but it is here in the Wild West as well.
Now, if the same two cowboys walked into a saloon, the scene might play out quite differently.
Porter explains: “Even in Texas… segregation in the saloons was apparently informal. Whites, it seems, were served at one end of the bar, Negroes at the other. But should a white man and a Negro choose to drink and converse together in the ‘neutral zone’ between the two sections probably no objection would be raised” (p. 123). So, both could enter through the front door and slake the thirst under the same roof. Approaching the bar required caution, but folk of different races might still bump elbows in the middle and have a palaver.
(palaver: a casual conversation, from the Spanish palabra, meaning “word”)
Unlike the strictly-segregated restaurants, saloons were only loosely segregated, open to Black men, and it was possible to interact, even bond, across the color line.
Now, why would these two types of establishments, both serving refreshments of different sorts, differ in this respect? Well, one reason is because a restaurant was a “respectable” space, appropriate for White ladies of a certain status. Even if no such ladies were present, their potential presence was enough to ordain a custom of segregation. On the other hand, a saloon was no place for a respectable lady. Saloons were male spaces. With apologies to Calamity Jane, it was considered unladylike to cavort in such establishments. This eased anxieties, and segregation was correspondingly a bit more lax.
It was even more lax at the gambling table. When the cards came out, there was little distinction between races. Presumably, part of this was a matter of competitive necessity. Porter states: “A gambler who intended to separate a Negro trail hand from his wages through the more than expert use of cards and dice could hardly do so without sitting down with him at the same card or crap table” (p. 124). At the same time, though, gambling was also another one of those male-coded spaces where women were rarely present, so miscegenation fears were eased. Consequently, Whites and Blacks both read from the same California prayer book.
(California prayer book: a deck of cards).
Moreover, when things came to blows, at the gambling table or elsewhere, sides did not necessarily break down along racial lines. Historian C. Robert Haywood notes that violence between Whites and Blacks in Dodge City was surprisingly rare, and cites a few instances where Whites actually defended their Black fellows in a scuffle (p. 171). Once again, violence is a male space. Unless fighting over a woman, ladies were rarely present.
But in spaces where ladies were always present, particularly in a sexual context, segregation once again reared its ugly head. Brothels were completely off-limits to Black customers. The thought of Black men sleeping with White women, even such soiled doves…
(soiled doves: prostitutes, a.k.a. sportin’ women, doves of the roost, or nymphs du prairie) (Weiser)
…was apparently too much. If a Black cowboy hoped to indulge his appetites, he had to do it at a Black brothel if the town was large enough to have one, or avail himself of the few independent Black ladies of the night if not (Porter, p. 124). Thus, the strongest segregation was precisely in the most explicitly sexual of situations where ladies were present.
So, we can see that segregation in the West manifested more or less on a sliding scale conforming to how likely White women were to be present. And where the question of interracial sex was explicit, segregation was strongest of all.
The Whitewashing of the Western, Redux
Fear of miscegenation, “polluting” the White race with mixed blood, was palpable throughout the heyday of the cowboy. Then, at the turn of the century, as the sun was setting on the real-life wrangler and rising on the silver-screen one, it proliferated even further. Miscegenation fears reached a fever pitch heading into the 1920s.
The infamous “Red Summer” of 1919 saw more than three dozen racial riots (or more accurately, racial massacres). Now, the situation was more complicated than we can get into here, and I don’t want to give the impression that sexual tension was the only or root cause, but it was certainly a major factor. Witness just two years following, in 1921, when the mere accidental touching of a White woman by a Black man in an elevator appears to have lit the match of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In response, a White mob rampaged across the Black town of Greenwood. More than 35 square blocks were razed to the ground. The death toll was at least 39, with total estimates ranging up to 300 killed (if you want to learn more, I highly recommended Nia Clarke’s excellent podcast, Dreams of Black Wall Street).
This event was buried in silence for decades, its true extent only now coming to light. At the heart of it was the fear of miscegenation. Whatever other tensions smoldered, it was the touching of a White woman by a Black man that caused it to flare into a conflagration.
This was the cultural milieu in which the genre of the Western came to Hollywood. It’s no wonder that silver screen wranglers lost any hint of melanin. Those early films may have been black-and-white, but their cowboys were not. In a genre which romanticized the cowboy as a symbol of American masculinity who could hardly ride through town without causing local women to air out their drawers, there was no place for cowboys of color.
The anxiety of miscegenation concretized in Hollywood in 1930 with the Hays Code, a set of industry guidelines which censored Hollywood films depicting intimate contact between the races. This persisted all the way up until 1956, when it was finally abandoned. Meanwhile, anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books in much of the country until 1967, when the Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia finally ruled them unconstitutional.
Today, interracial sex is widely accepted, but the Western genre is arguably still recovering. To this day, when you think of cowboys, most people only think of one skin tone. Jamie Foxx slinging guns in Django Unchained feels like reversing the genre, even though Black cowboys did ride the range. The all-Black cast in The Harder They Fall feels like revisionist history, even though all-Black towns did exist.
The Black cowboy remains invisible. When you think of cowboy movies, somehow you just don’t think of Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven. Or, if you do, you don’t think of that as historically accurate. Yet, given all that we’ve heard today, the friendship and mutual respect between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman’s characters in that movie is probably the closest to actual history as has ever graced the silver screen.
Still, it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, what comes to mind when you think of cowboys is the Lone Ranger, a character ironically inspired by Black marshall Bass Reeves, or John Wayne, an actor who played Black Texan Britt Johnson, erasing his race in the process.
In the end, it just wouldn’t do to let the romanticized, masculinized hero who gets the girl have anything more than a desert tan. The genre was whitewashed in part because fears of interracial sex required cowboys to be Whiter than White. Correspondingly, the Black cowboy became invisible.
That is what the friends of that little boy that Herb Jeffries met crying in the street in the 1930s meant when they said he couldn’t play Tom Mix.
Because, they said, “Tom Mix ain’t Black.”
That’s all I’ve got for you today, folks. I hope you learned something; I certainly did. We’ll be back next time when we’ll finally explore the other side of the frontier, the perspective of its native inhabitants, for whom the Western takes on a rather different tenor. For them, it was the destruction of a way of life, including a way of viewing gender that baffled Europeans and only today is starting to be appreciated. That’s what we’ll explore in the next installment of our series Sex in the Wild West. I don’t know if it will be next month exactly. There might be some guest episodes or interview episodes in the meantime, but it’s coming.
Meanwhile, if you like what we’re doing here on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a lariat-looping lad or lass finding your fortune on the frontier with no regard to the color of your skin, or whatever you want. I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to http://www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright folks, I’ll see you next time. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
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Sources for Authentic Frontier Lingo
Episode theme music: “Cowboys Ambient Enigma Free Hip Hop Music” from Ambient Enigma Music
“Nat Love, Straight Outta Deadwood” audiodrama mixed from:
“Horses Galloping” from Peaceful Collections
“Horse All 4 Sound Effects” from Free Sound Effects
“Flamenco Dance, Guitar, and Singing” from Ramón Kailani, Old Channel
“2019 Amazing Flamenco Guitar Artist on Streets of Seville” from Repeal Sec.230
“Crazy Banjo” from Freesound Music
“Old Western Sounds” from Played N Faved
Other audio from:
“Django Unchained Official Movie Trailer” from Movieclips Trailers
“The Bronze Buckaroo 1939 Herb Jeffries” from reelblack
“Midnight Ramble: The Story of Race Movies” from reelblack
All narration and voice acting by B. T. Newberg
Nat Love from Wikipedia