Black History Month

Attorney Douglas Lewis, director of the University of Michigan's Student Legal Services, has a longtime interest in African American history, particularly as it pertains to the settling of the West. This is his first in a series of columns written for The Legal News during Black History Month.

Where were the authentic African American actors?

Like so many others, I learned the history of the United States from Hollywood movies. As a child, I sat and watched those westerns on Saturday morning along with so many of my peers. As I grew, I continued to watch old westerns, often late at night.

One of those movies was Tomahawk.

Tomahawk takes place during the Great Sioux Uprising of the 1860s. Van Heflin stars as famed frontier scout Jim Bridger, who labors valiantly and vainly to orchestrate peace between Indians and whites. His native wife is played by Susan Cabot. Jack Okie portrays James Beckworth. Jack Okie was a character actor who appeared in 58 movies. He was never the star; he just stood next to them. He portrayed many different types of characters, and always seemed to have a good sense of timing and comic relief.

What makes the movie interesting is that the characters played by both van Heflin and Okie were real people. Jim Bridger was a mountain man who hunted and trapped and on occasion scouted for the army.

Jim Beckworth was born in St. Louis Missouri before the Civil War. When he came of age, he worked as a blacksmith. As he reached young adulthood he did as most people that age do. He started dating. History does not give us details, but his employer had a problem with this relationship and constantly complained to Beckworth about the situation. Beckworth tired of the arguments and decided to leave St. Louis for the freedom of the west. He picked up his belongings and headed west.

He became a mountain man. These men were rugged and independent. Their lives were spent in the western wilderness. They hunted for animals to trap for their fur and skins. This was a solitary life. They could spend months in the rugged mountains of the western United States. Even with this kind of hardship they helped to develop the American West. They were the basis for a large part of the western economy of the time. The fur trade was big business. So big in fact, that foreign companies would establish outposts for the mountain men to come in and trade their furs for supplies. Those supplies would include things like sugar, coffee, and ammunition.

In this wild and open country, a person had to make choices that impacted his survival. You either made friends with the locals or you made enemies of them. In time, Beckworth chose to make friends. In fact, he began living with a Native American tribe, married a native woman, and was later made a tribal chief.

He was given this honor after proving himself in battle. Contrary to popular belief, the Native Americans were not a united body. Various tribes would engage in hostile actions against one another. He and his adoptive tribe went into battle with other tribes. After one of those battles, he was renamed Chief Bloody Arm because when he returned from battle, his arm was covered in the blood of his enemies.

Time passed, and soon Jim was tempted by the question of what was over the next mountain. He went further west and discovered a pass between Nevada and California. Being the modest fellow he was, he named the pass for himself. The pass is still there. You can find it on a map by looking just north of Truckee Nevada.

Now I know what you're thinking: Why is Doug writing a story about a white actor who played the part of this white guy who lived way out west for Black History month? Well I'm not. You see, Jim Beckworth was black. His "employer" was actually his owner. He was also Jim's father. He had raped Jim's mother who was also his slave. In my mind this is why there is a Black History month. It gives some of us a chance to set the record straight.

Many of us can remember watching movies where the "Indians" who had speaking parts in movies were all played by whites. Actors such as Sal Mineo, Jeff Chandler and Frank Decova. Chandler actually won an academy award portraying an "Indian". At least they wore makeup and clothing that made us think they were real "Indians." In the portrayal of Beckworth, that effort is never made. It was easier to say that African Americans were not part of the picture. The truth, however, is very different.

The truth is important here because the West offered something to African Americans that was as important then as it is now. It is something that needs to be passed on to our kids now. Whether they were born free or into slavery, the West was true freedom. A man could be a man. Color did not matter as much as skill, courage, and honor.

Remember: We were there!

Published: Thu, Feb 2, 2012

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