In the legends of the American West, heroes are made up of lawmen and outlaws. There is this story: a man as strong as Billy the Kid, as good a gun as Wild Bill Hickok, and as fast as a horse. . Pony Express. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves stands 6 feet 2 inches tall and is as imposing as his mustache. So powerful was it that if he spat on a brick, it was said that the brick would shatter.
“He was like the Michael Jordan of Border Patrol,” said biographer Art Burton. “He could whip any two people with his bare hands.”
Burton, an expert on African American studies, said Reeves roamed the heart of Indian and Oklahoma Territory with near impunity — a nightmare scenario for any outlaw. “As I was doing the research, I kept shaking my head and saying people weren’t going to believe this,” he said.
You might think that such a Wild West story would almost come naturally. But when Burton began researching a book about Reeves, he kept hitting dead ends, just as he did when he tried to trace the Bass Reeves family tree. “A woman answered the phone and she said she had never heard of him,” Burton said. “I said, ‘Well, he’s an African-American man who served as a deputy U.S. marshal.’ And she was very nice about it; she said, ‘Sir, I’m sorry, we don’t keep black history here.'”
Before becoming a lawman, Reeves was a runaway, an escaped slave from Texas. The former slave eventually became famous for arresting white people. Yet his remarkable story has been largely forgotten as a ghost town — and Oklahomans say his time has come. One man said: “He’s a legend. I can’t imagine him being white and having the kind of career he has and it’s not a big movie, maybe a few times already.”
For actor David Oyelowo, Bass Reeves’ story has the same ingredients as The Lone Ranger, if not better. “It’s one thing to be a white man wearing a mask and riding a really cool horse,” he said. “It’s another thing to do it with limited resources. You’re a black man who escaped slavery and you do this for over 30 years and no one pays attention to you? It feels almost intentional. “We don’t know much about him. . ”
Last spring, Oyelowo spoke on “Sunday Morning” about his attempts to gain a foothold by starring in and executive producing a TV series for Paramount+ (CBS’s sister network) called “Lawyers: Bass Reeve.” “S” eight-episode series to try to correct historical omissions.
It’s a large-scale production, shot mostly on a ranch in Texas, starring veteran actors such as Donald Sutherland and Dennis Quaid.
“Man, it was great to do a Western,” Quaid said. “It’s like being 12 years old again. It really is.”
Quaid was equally impressed by Reeves’ real-life devotion to the law: “Bass Reeves is really the real deal. That’s exactly who he is.”
Oyelowo said he studied recordings of slave narratives found at the Library of Congress to make sure the pattern of his speech was just right. He also learned to rope and ride a horse. “I’m always looking for an opportunity to scare myself, and this actually did it!” I laughed.
He must have his own opinions about Reeves. But this character also reminds us that no matter how long it takes, light always shines upon greatness. “My mantra in life is that excellence is the best weapon against prejudice,” Oyelowo said. “He’s outstanding. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, this is a black man who doesn’t deserve to be conquered.'” You can’t ignore him in this way. That’s why it would be a mistake not to celebrate him. “
Bass Reeves lived to the age of 71 and spent his final years in the border town of Muskogee. Reeves is still honored at the Three Rivers Museum there and is commemorated annually at the Bass Reeves Western History Conference.
No one knows where Reeves is buried—perhaps that only adds to the mystery.
It didn’t matter to Art Burton; his inner child wanted to thank Reeves for honoring him and other black Americans, honoring their own legend.
“I always used to wonder, where are we (in the story of the Old West)?” Burton said. “So it’s like, God answered my prayers and gave me someone before I passed away who said, ‘Okay, we’re part of the scene, too.'”
To watch the trailer for The Enforcer: Bass Reeves, click on the video player below.
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Story by David Rothman. Editor: Ed Givenish.