Unidentified Photographer, Production still for the film The Crimson Skull, 1921
The Daniel Cowin Collection of African American Vernacular Photography
“Race films”—movies with all-black casts produced for black audiences—were an integral part of the African American viewing experience from World War I through the mid-1940s. Plagued by low budgets and often sketchy production values, these films nevertheless offered black actors the opportunity to perform in nonstereotypical roles. The Crimson Skull, the first all-black western, was filmed in 1921 in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma, by the all-white Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida. The choice of Boley was perhaps related to its fame as host of a rodeo for African American cowboys. The cast of The Crimson Skull featured Anita Bush, Lawrence Chenault, Steve Reynolds, and Bill Pickett, a world champion rodeo rider. Anita Bush (1883–1974) came to film after years of stage experience; in 1915, she formed the first black company dedicated to performing serious dramatic works. The Anita Bush Players (later called the Lafayette Players) premiered at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre in 1915 and survived until 1932, training hundreds of black actors and spawning road companies that traveled on circuits to major cities across the United States.