Herb Jeffries was the Bronze Buckaroo, star of five all-Black-cast singing-cowboy movies in the 1930s and ’40s. His sweet, rich baritone fronted Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the 1941 megahit “Flamingo” and countless other tunes and set women’s hearts a-fluttering. He crooned with every major orchestra in the big-band era and entertained the troops in World War II. On tour in the South, he slept in Black hotels with his bandmates and ate from the backdoors of restaurants. After the war, he opened a nightclub in Paris, in part to avoid the hate that was foisted on him as a Black man married to a White wife in America. On his return to Hollywood in the 1950s, Jeffries starred in several more movies and appeared in television shows throughout the 1960s and ’70s. He continued to sing in California nightclubs into the 1990s. Yet Jeffries was Black by choice, not birth. He was born Umberto Alejandro Ballentino in 1913, the son of a Sicilian father and Irish mother. He lived to age one hundred as a Black man and took the abuse that came with that identity. This article tells his story. It is one of many such stories of racial shape shifters that will appear in my book currently in progress, Race Changes.

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