Hollywood and history keep whitewashing the Wild West.
The cowboy is an enduring symbol of American masculinity. The original “tough guy” or “bad boy,” cowboys are strong, brave and stoic — in short, they display all the societally-approved characteristics of a “real man”. But beyond their bandanas, Stetson hats and leather chaps, the best-known cowboys from both history and Hollywood share one key commonality: the color of their skin.
Over the last few years, historians, artists and filmmakers have worked hard to dispel the image of cowboys as an exclusively white community. Through art and education, they’re amplifying the narrative of the black cowboy — a population that is historically ignored and whitewashed.
Cowboys were a multicultural crew
Spaghetti westerns paint a very beige picture of the Wild West, but cattle hands and ranchers in the 1800s were a multicultural crew. A mixture of black, white, Native American and Mexican men (and women,) cowboys toiled together on the open land of the southwestern United States.
Black cowboys were particularly adept at the profession because many of them had prior experience with cattle herding — some of the Western African men taken from their homes to serve as American slaves were ripped from communities of cattle herders. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, former slaves made their way out west to pursue work that was familiar and allowed them to take advantage of their newfound independence.
The real Lone Ranger
Cowboys were a diverse group, but inequality still permeated the range. Black cowboys were expected to perform the most challenging and dangerous tasks, like herding cattle across rivers and taming horses. In a piece for Black America Web, Erica Taylor writes, “The life of the black cowboy was tougher than most.”
Despite the rampant discrimination, black cattle hands surpassed expectations and became legends in their own right. Nat Love wrote his way into history; his memoirs provide a firsthand account of his time herding cattle across the western United States. Mary Fields, also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” hauled freight and supplies for Montana nuns before landing a job with the US Postal Service. Bass Reeves — a former slave turned farmer and rancher — was the first black US Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. It is widely speculated that Reeves was the real Lone Ranger, or at the very least, served as the inspiration for the radio show character.
The historical whitewashing of black cowboys
Why doesn’t the average American know more about these incredible historical figures? Jim Austin, co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, blames our education system. He tells the BBC:
“The kids who are learning history in our schools are not being told the truth about they way the West was. I bet you nine out of 10 people in this country think that cowboys were all white — as I did.”
In fact, historians have concluded that in the late 19th century, as many as one in four cowboys were black.
London-based photographer John Ferguson believes Hollywood is responsible for whitewashing these men and women from America’s history. “Hollywood played a major part in dismissing the role of black cowboys. In 99% of Western cowboy films, there is no black cowboy,” Ferguson told CNN.
In the last five years, the art and entertainment industries have begun to reverse the damage done to the legend of black cowboys. In 2012, Ferguson and Gregg MacDonald released a new documentary, “The Forgotten Cowboys,” following modern black cowboys and rodeos stars and paying tribute to black cowboys of yesteryear. That same year, Quentin Tarantino released “Django Unchained.” The spaghetti western featured actor Jamie Foxx as an ex-slave turned cowboy and won an Oscar for Best Director. Recently, the Studio Museum in Harlem honored these men and women through a visual exhibition called “Black Cowboy”.
Regardless of recent artistic efforts, there is still much work to be done to reverse the whitewashed history of the American cowboy. Sharing stories of black cowboys through art, education, museums and service organizations chips away at a piece of Americana whose facade has appeared too light-skinned for far too long.