In his heyday, Bass Reeves befriended the likes of white female outlaw Belle Star (a former Confederate who admired Reeves enough to listen to his warning and, for the only time in her career, turn herself into the feds instead of being rounded up and shipped across the territory) and arrested those who broke the law against blacks, including, in one case, stealing a black woman’s horse. The measure was the crime, not the man. And, while the territories lasted, Reeves wasn’t the only black lawman in the saddle. In fact, the historian John Hope Franklin’s father, Buck Franklin, remembered up to 50 black lawmen before Oklahoma entered statehood in 1907; many, including Reeves, he knew personally.
Yet, as more and more whites moved in (thanks to the safety Reeves had afforded them), the color line was more sharply drawn, Burton explains. On one occasion, Reeves had to guard the Paris, Texas, jail under threat that a mob would lynch those detained inside. On another, he had to pursue those who’d murdered a black man and white woman for living together, even though no one went to prison (the “Wybark Tragedy,” it was called). And in one standoff with a white outlaw in public, Reeves realized the only way to restore order was to let his target surrender his weapons to a white man.
In the play world in which I grew up, there were “white” cowboys and “red” Indians. In Reeves’ world, everything was more mixed. Yet, after Oklahoma became a state on Nov. 16, 1907, there was black and white, and without the “need for a large force of federal police, the men who had helped bring law and order to the territory,” Burton explains, “[t]here would be no more African American deputy U.S. marshals until late in the twentieth century.”
Not only were black lawmen at greater risk after statehood, with white criminals taking their chances by shooting first, “Negro policemen” were largely relegated to black towns where they could only arrest other blacks. Turns out, the one outlaw Reeves couldn’t cuff was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was the law.
Bass Reeves retired from the marshal service in November 1907. Two months later, he joined the Muskogee police department, walking a beat with a cane, though, as the Western Age put it on Jan. 2, 1908, Reeves was “as quick of trigger … as in the days when the gun men were in demand.”
On Jan. 12, 1910, Reeves died at home due to complications from Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder. He was 72. To this day, the location of his grave is unknown. In 1927, J.M. Hall was the last to mention Reeves in a book, Burton writes, until 1971, when William L. Katz released The Black West and Kaye M. Teall published Black History in Oklahoma.
The Lone Rangers
On Jan. 30, 1933, The Lone Ranger premiered on American radio. But, despite the similarities I outlined at the top, in the same 1939 story for the Saturday Evening Post, J. Bryan III explained how George Trendle, the impresario who conceived of The Lone Ranger for his struggling, Depression-era radio station, WXYZ Detroit, apparently “pictured him as a composite of Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro.” And in the creative meetings with his staff, including Fran Striker and James Jewell, one writer spontaneously suggested a white Arabian horse, while another dreamed up silver shoes for it based on the aluminum wrapped around a penny.
There were other meaningful distinctions between the two fabled lawmen. While the Lone Ranger was noted for avoiding killing, Reeves not only had his slate of 14 but also went to trial for having (accidentally) shot his cook, William Leach, on the trail. While the Lone Ranger’s family had all but been wiped out by the Butch Cavendish gang, Reeves had an extensive family life, including a first and second wife and a bevy of children. And whereas the Lone Ranger spoke proper Eastern U.S. English as if he’d attended a fancy college, Reeves succeeded without learning to read or write.
On a deeper level, though, I, like Burton, cannot escape sensing a deeper affinity between Reeves and the Ranger. Even if the writers of the series weren’t aware of him, Bass Reeves had, through his decades of service, worked the image of the frontier lawman into the American consciousness, to borrow from my late friend Al Murray. There, he gave us stories and archetypes, true even if masked. Though people certainly knew where Reeves lived (he stated it countless times in court documents), he was an outsider on the boundary between state and territory, law and lawlessness. Still, his fidelity to the law was so great he even arrested his own son, Ben Reeves, for murdering an adulterous wife, not to mention arresting the minister who baptized him.