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Alum filmmaker showcases the legacy of Black cowboys and their impact on the American frontier

Alumni Feb 29, 2024

Nick Jones poses for a portrait Monday, February. 26, 2024, on campus at IU South Bend. (Photo by Michael Caterina) Nick Jones, BA ‘71Amidst the broader landscape of Black history, there is a key narrative that isn’t as widely known: the role that Black cowboys played in the Old West. Indiana University South Bend alum Nick Jones, BA ’71, is dedicated to telling the story and preserving the legacy of the Black American men who contributed to the American West.

“My focus has always been on Black men, who you may never have heard of, who have made an impact,” explains Jones.

Jones is an independent filmmaker and published author who has been creating works on the subject for more than 30 years. His company WTJ Films is based in South Bend and specializes in independent western projects concerning Black American men who helped build the American West. His first film, “Bass Reeves: U.S. Deputy Marshall” (1994) was filmed on location in Texas and Arkansas and aired on television in the Chicago area. It tells the story of Bass Reeves, an ex-slave and America’s first Black U.S. Deputy Marshal in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1876.

After his first Western film, Jones wrote the novel “The Exodusters: The Man from Texas”, a fictional account of Walter Jackson, the first Black cowboy in Great Falls, Montana. Jones adapted “Exoduster” into a film in 2006. It has the notable honor of being the first Western movie shot in South Bend.

“History is more fascinating than fiction,” says Jones. “It is rewarding bringing these stories to the screen.”

Although his works are fictionalized, Jones is devoted to significant research to ensure they are based upon what verifiable historical information is available. The historical accuracy of his work even drew the attention of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, which has his film memorabilia on display in two exhibits. The hat, gun, and gun belt worn in “Bass Reeves”, along with still photography and digitized content from the film, were requested for their collection in July of 2023.

Originally from South Bend, Jones graduated from Washington High School in 1963. After serving in the military during the Vietnam War and being honorably discharged, Jones attended IU South Bend in its beginnings, and earned undergraduate degrees in psychology and sociology. He is among one of the first graduating classes of IU South Bend, where he played for the intramural football club team and participated in the Afro-American Society, a predecessor to the Black Student Union. Jones was also part of a pivotal aspect of IU South Bend history - he recalls participating in the student body decision to officially designate the athletics teams name as the Titans.

Jones’ upcoming plans include work on a new short film in pre-production about Willie Kennard, who became the first Black town marshal in Denver, Colorado in 1874. It is scheduled to begin shooting on location in Ohio in April.

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