Jess Lee Brooks: A Black Western Actor in the Narrative of the American West

By Anthony Wood

Brooks (2)

Jess Lee Brooks played quiet, competent, and understanding men in nearly a dozen Hollywood productions during the 1930s and 40s. As the sheriff in the all-black western, Two Gun Man from Harlem (1938), Brooks slowly entered the saloon where a murder had taken place. The deputies, bar keep, and the comic cook all appeared frantic compared to his calm demeanor. His very large and tall frame moved slowly through scenes, giving him a sense of control over any situation. The black western sheriff stood half a foot above the other actors, yet he stood out for other reasons. In such films where the black cowboy band breaks into a scat and jazz number in the middle of “I’m a Happy Cowboy,” and the protagonist dons a New York accent and pencil-thin mustache, Jess Lee Brooks’ western characters were strikingly authentic. This might be because he was not merely a black western actor, but because he was a black westerner.

 

Brooks grew up in Great Falls, Montana. In 1911, he left school at Great Falls High a year early to attend Western University outside Kansas City. Western was an all-black industrial school modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The university was famous for its music program. Given Brooks’ later performance in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) where he delivers a stirring rendition of “Go Down Moses” that many classic movie lovers will recall, it seems likely that the young Montanan performed while at the school.

It is important, however, that we remember Brooks as more than an actor. As an African American man, he was cognizant of the structures of racism in which he lived as a westerner and vocally criticized them.

In 1910, 16 year old Jesse Brooks penned a column for the Great Falls High School journal, Round Up, entitled “Race Problem in the West.” It was reprinted in the Helena newspaper, the Montana Plaindealer. The editor, Joseph Bass, was a family friend and an avowed supporter of Booker T. Washington’s social ideology. He commended the young Brooks for his insights and promise, though he noted that Brooks was “evidently in error on one or two points.”

Bass likely disagreed with Brooks on the importance of industrial education. In his paper, brooks wrote:

Idleness is a great hindrance to any race or class of people. Yet, if employment is cut off on all sides by prejudiced beings who refuse to work with a man because he is of a little darker color, the result is the idleness of the oppressed…This is the predicament that the negroes in the West are in today, and this is the one thing that leaders of the race are trying to eliminate. It is almost impossible for an educated negro to use his education for his support… What we must have are highly educated leaders. We hear many criticisms of higher education of the negro, and many say that university education is only time wasted. I do not agree with these critics. Not that industrial education should be minimized, but that higher education should be emphasized.

Montana Plaindealer, May 27, 1910

When Brooks said it was “impossible for an educated negro to use his education for his support,” he was likely referring to industrial education championed by Booker T. Washington. Jesse Brooks recognized the value of such education elsewhere in the country, but believed that in the West, labor unions and state legislation undermined the key tenant of Washingtonian ideology. In letters that Brooks wrote to Bass from college, it is evident that the young activist continued his support of Washington’s program of racial uplift. However, the methods that Brooks laid out in his article and subsequent correspondence closely echoed the teachings of the more radical W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois deeply opposed many of Washington’s accommodational principles—namely, the belief that blacks should not agitate for political and civic rights.

When considering the legacy of Jess Lee Brooks in Montana, it is important to not simply hold him up as a novelty, or, as writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates cautions, to put him in a trophy case of “the first or only black man to do ____.” Brooks’ film career should be celebrated, and rightfully so. But before he was a black actor in Hollywood westerns, he was a real actor in the history of the American West. He cared deeply about issues pertaining to his community, and the social institutions of his city and state.

From this perspective, the sheriff in Two Gun Man From Harlem is not just a man pretending to be a cowboy for audiences in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Harlem. Jess Lee Brooks’ performance carries real meaning and authenticity, and conveys some measure of the real American West.

Anthony Wood is a graduate student in the department of History at Montana State University where he studies race and African American history in Montana and the American West.

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