Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A New Era in an Old Frontier Town

Images of Bass Reeves in Various Publications

Having grown up in a western frontier town that rests on the border of Arkansas and what was at one time Indian Territory, one has to appreciate the unique history of Ft. Smith Arkansas. 

At the same time, Arkansas, though on the edge of the western frontier, was also a southern state. And for me, growing up as a black child in the 1950s and 60s, that meant that there were rules of the "old south" that prevailed. Jim Crow was strongly in place, with no privileges extended to the city's black residents to eat in restaurants, and no accommodation was given for out of town visitors if they were people of color. Schools were separate, as were all aspects of life. And persons of merit who had done extraordinary deeds, if they were people of color, were never mentioned. Their accomplishments were kept secret and their history was buried. So growing up in Ft. Smith, a town with a remarkable history, a man such as Bass Reeves, was never mentioned, never discussed, and basically ignored.

Over the years the old south began to fade yet still the complete history of the city including that of people like Bass Reeves, remained untold. But in the1990s something began to change. 

In 1994, I obtained a copy of a new book that had been published by writer and historian Art Burton. And in that book, Black, Red and Deadly more than 60 pages were devoted to the history of a man whom I had never heard about, called Bass Reeves. I was amazed and captivated by his history and quite grateful that the author had exposed the history of this man. 

Black, Red & Deadly by Art T. Burton

Thanks to the scholarship of Art Burton, I was surprised to learn not only of the history of Bass Reeves the US Deputy Marshal, but also to learn that there were other men of color who also worked out of the Western District Court of Arkansas---right there in my hometown of Ft. Smith Arkansas.

Over the years things began to unfold in other ways---the National Historic Site operated in Ft. Smith by the National Park Service began to use images of Bass Reeves and to display his face among the many faces of the other US Marshals. In addition, thanks to the work of author Burton, the history of other men of color who also worked for Judge Isaac C. Parker's court were finally being told as well.

Fast forward to 2012. It is now 102 years since Bass Reeves died in Muskogee Oklahoma. The city from which he served the Western District Court of Arkansas, is finally embracing this amazing man. It was decided to erect a statue honoring Bass Reeves, and this month the statue will be unveiled.

And thankfully, the times have also changed. Jim Crow laws have died, visitors are welcomed to the city of all backgrounds and colors, and the days of restriction and oppression have faded. 

In these new times, a city that tried to bury Bass Reeves history, has now embraced his history. Donations have poured in from across the country. Local school children collected pennies for the erection of the statue that will honor this man. A wonderful website, The Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative was built to collect funds that supported this initiative. 

On May 26 of this month, the city of Ft. Smith will unveil a statue depicting Bass Reeves, and his remarkable legacy. This will be the first equestrian statue in the state of Arkansas. This will also be the first statue erected in the state honoring a person of color.

An image of the statue and the story of its creation, is already reflected on the most recent cover of Entertainment Fort Smith, Magazine.  The city rallied around efforts to pay for the monument, and as school children of all colors throughout the city collected pennies over the past two years to also help pay for this monument, another man who lives in the city, Baridi Nkokheli has a very strong resemblance to Bass Reeves and he has been portraying Bass Reeves at numerous evens throughout the city. He is celebrated and cheered in the annual Rodeo Parade, and children now know the name of Bass Reeves.

Baridi Nkokheli Portrays Bass Reeves
Source: The City Wire

And now, all eyes will be directed to the banks of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith Arkansas in late May. Visitors from the west will see the statue of Bass as they cross the bridge into the state of Arkansas from the west. All leaving the city traveling into Oklahoma will see Bass facing the western frontier as they leave.  

I am happy that this man is at long last being honored and that his story is at last being told.

Thankfully the times have changed, and there is a new era in this old frontier town.


Robyn said...

Nice story, Angela. Maybe one day they'll even do a movie/documentary on him. I'd love to see something like that. So many amazing people of color, and their stories of accomplishment, are just waiting to be found.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

There is much talk about a movie and has been for several years. At the dedication ceremony there will be some actors and film makers there as well. I will try to capture images at the event.