The story begins in 1884, on a stormy day in June. Two men on horseback are traveling through the Chickasaw Nation, in what is today southern Oklahoma, moving southwest among the timbered hills and rocky outcrops of the Arbuckle Mountains. 

Mud-splattered and road-weary, the riders have covered nearly two hundred miles in the days since they set out from the federal courthouse in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A windstorm the day before had kicked up dust so thick that folks in a nearby town along the Red River claimed it was impossible to see farther than twenty yards. Now a light rain has settled in the area. Lightning splinters the sky. But as the men pass beneath a thick canopy of blackjack and post oak, the weather hardly matters. The riders are on a mission. Tucked inside one of their saddlebags is a warrant for the arrest of a Texas cowboy wanted for murder. Tasked with serving that writ is Bass Reeves.

Astride his big red stallion, with two Colt revolvers on his belt and a Winchester rifle in a scabbard by his side, Reeves is one of the most imposing figures on this rough frontier. At six foot two in his stockings, he’s taller than most men of his era and would tower half a foot over Billy the Kid. He wears a black hat and keeps his hair cropped tight, and his face is clean-shaven save for a thick, bristly mustache that could do double duty as a chimney brush. Fistfights have left a latticework of scar tissue across his knuckles. Pinned on the left side of his vest, just above his heart, is the silver star of the U.S. Marshals Service. He is one of the first Black men to wear the badge. 

Reeves is just shy of his forty-sixth birthday and has worked as a deputy marshal in the Indian Territory for nine years. He knows this sprawling territory, as he likes to say, “like a cook knows her kitchen.” As he and his posseman, John Cantrell, draw nearer to their destination—Jim Bywater’s general store, near the town of Woodford—Reeves slows the pace. With luck, this is where they’ll find their man. 

The fugitive, Jim Webb, is no stranger to Reeves. The year before, Webb had drifted north from Texas to the Chickasaw Nation, where he’d found work as foreman of the sprawling Washington-McLish ranch. Webb was hotheaded and mean, a tyrant who rode herd over some 45 cowboys. One day that spring, a reverend named William Steward was performing a controlled burn on his property when the fire accidentally spread to the neighboring Washington-McLish ranch and scorched some of its grazing pastures. A fuming Webb rode over to confront the circuit preacher and left having murdered him.

A few days after the killing, Reeves and a posseman arrived at the Washington-McLish ranch disguised as trail-driving cowboys. As was custom at the time, they asked for breakfast, and Webb allowed the men to come inside and eat. But the foreman was suspicious of the strangers; Webb and his right-hand man, Frank Smith, drew their sidearms and kept a close eye on them. Reeves kept up the charade until, for a moment, something else caught Webb’s attention. Reeves sprang up, gripped Webb by the throat with one hand, and pulled his six-shooter on him with the other. Smith wheeled around and fired two shots at Reeves. Both went wide. Reeves answered with a single report from his Colt. He did not miss. Webb gurgled a surrender, while his gut-shot compatriot bled on the floor. Webb was put in irons, and the men started the long trip back to the Fort Smith jail, known as “Hell on the Border.” Smith died of his wounds by the time the posse reached the Chickasaw capitol of Tishomingo. His bones lie there still. 

Webb spent most of the next year behind bars before two of his pals, including the store owner Bywater, helped him post bail on a $17,000 bond. Webb was long gone by the time his trial began, and the bond money—nearly half a million in today’s dollars—was forfeited. 

Now Reeves is once again hot on his trail. When the deputy marshal spots Bywater’s store in a clearing, he sends his posseman ahead to look for their quarry. Cantrell sneaks up and peers through a window. There, among the dry goods and horse tack, is Webb. Cantrell motions to Reeves, but as the deputy marshal approaches on his horse, Webb catches sight of him and makes a dash for freedom, leaping through a window on the other side of the store. He beelines for his pony, but Reeves cuts him off. Webb sprints toward a clump of brush to use as cover. Then he turns and starts shooting. 

A bullet rips a button from Reeves’s coat. Before he can dismount, another shot cuts his bridle rein in two. Reeves slides from the saddle and draws his Winchester. Yet another slug strikes the brim of his hat. He steadies the rifle. Exhales. Fires. His aim is true. Reeves squeezes the trigger again. Webb crumples to the wet dirt. 

Reeves approaches the dying man. He’s followed by his posseman and other onlookers, including Bywater, who records the last words of the Texas outlaw, later repeated in 1901 by historian D. C. Gideon: “Give me your hand, Bass . . . I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth.”

Black and white photo of Bass Reeves and other U.S. Marshals in hats and dress coats.
Reeves (far left), at age 69, posing with fellow members of the U.S. Marshals Service on the first day of Oklahoma statehood, November 16, 1907.Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

So goes one of the many tales of Bass Reeves, whose exploits were so legendary they often sound like myth. But the historical record corroborates many of the most stunning details. Some criminals were so afraid of Reeves they turned themselves in as soon as they heard he was after them. He stalked others in their nightmares. Once, Reeves even arrested his own son for murder. “We quite commonly refer to Bass as the most prolific law enforcement officer the nation has ever seen,” said David Kennedy, the curator at the U.S. Marshals Museum, in Fort Smith. “He was an enslaved person and ends up becoming one of the most well-known lawmen of the age as a Black man in the South.” Art T. Burton, a retired history professor and the leading authority on Reeves, added, “To me, Bass Reeves is the greatest frontier hero in American history—bar none. I don’t know who you could compare him to. This guy walked in the Valley of Death every day for thirty-two years and came out alive.”

Though he was mostly forgotten for much of the last century, Reeves—who grew up in Texas and spent several years working out of the federal courthouse in the northeast Texas town of Paris—has in recent years ascended to the realm of American folk hero, inspiring a shelf’s worth of nonfiction books and novels, several low-budget biopics, and the Bass Reeves Western History Conference, held every year in Muskogee, Oklahoma. 

Pop culture has discovered Reeves as well. He was depicted in a brief but pivotal role at the beginning of the critically adored HBO series Watchmen. Rumor has it that later this year, a character based on Reeves will appear in the Jay-Z–produced, star-studded western The Harder They Fall. In Concrete Cowboy, one of the most popular movies on Netflix this spring, Reeves gets a nod when one character explains the role Black cowboys played in shaping the West: “Even the Lone Ranger was Black.”

This idea—that Reeves was the inspiration for one of the most popular western characters of all time—has gained widespread traction.If you google Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger, you’ll find books, podcasts, magazine stories, and thousands of social media posts declaring that Reeves was almost certainly the man behind the myth. “Bass Reeves: Baddest Marshal in the Old West, Original ‘Lone Ranger,’ ” reads one headline from earlier this year. Others have run with a simpler declaration: “The Real Lone Ranger Was Black.” 

But some have questioned that claim. And as the legend of Reeves grows, those who care most about his legacy are wrestling with how best to remember him. If he wasn’t the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, who was he?

statue of Bass Reeves on a horse with a shotgun and his dog.
The Reeves statue, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Earlier this year, I made the trek to Fort Smith to see Reeves for myself. The bronze statue of the deputy marshal stands 25 feet tall, including the horse he’s riding and the monument’s stone pedestal. A faithful dog is mid-stride alongside him. Reeves grips the reins in one hand and holds a rifle with the other. He is heading westward across the Arkansas River toward the Indian Territory—or, as we call it today, Oklahoma.

Several hundred yards behind the statue sits the two-story redbrick building that once served as the federal courthouse of Judge Isaac C. Parker, Reeves’s old boss, who’s best remembered for hanging 79 felons on the gallows out back over the course of his 21-year tenure on the bench. The executions drew big crowds in the 1880s. Even as some locals condemned the spectacle, folks from all over streamed in on the railroads. They booked every bed in town, and when those ran out, they pitched tents on the outskirts. Vendors hawked hot tamales, and bits of the hangman’s rope were sold afterward as souvenirs. 

It’s a quieter scene on this day—the national historic site is closed because of COVID-19, and a deadly winter storm is just starting to stir—but typically the Reeves monument is one of the most popular attractions in Fort Smith. The city, which heavily promotes its frontier history to draw tourists, has championed the story of the Black deputy marshal. Reeves is a celebrity here. Just a few blocks from where I stand, a black-and-white photo of Reeves stares at passersby beneath a Godfather’s Pizza Express sign. Recently, his star has surpassed that of another famous Fort Smith denizen, the fictional marshal Rooster Cogburn of True Grit (portrayed by John Wayne, in 1969, in his only Oscar-winning role, and later by Jeff Bridges, in 2010). But if you’d asked fifteen years ago who Reeves was, most locals wouldn’t have had a clue. There was no statue of Reeves, no trace of the man anywhere. He’d been scrubbed from history. A ghost. If it hadn’t been for Art Burton, it’s likely that would still be the case.

Burton remembers the first time he heard about Reeves. It was the early sixties. He was eleven years old, a young Black kid watching a western at his grandparents’ home in the predominantly Black town of Arcadia, on the northeastern edge of Oklahoma City. Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp was the film’s hero. “My grandparents came to Oklahoma when it was still a territory in 1890,” Burton told me. “So after we watched the movie, I asked my grandfather, ‘Was there ever any Black lawmen that you can remember growing up?’ And he told me that he remembered a Black deputy marshal riding through Arcadia. That was fascinating because that’s something you didn’t see in movies or television: Blacks who were deputy marshals.” 

Art Burton in front of Bass Reeves memorabilia.
Art Burton at his home, outside of Chicago.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Burton pressed him further: “ ‘Was there any like Wyatt Earp?’ And he said, ‘No, not that I can remember.’ Then he asked my grandmother, ‘Who was that famous Black marshal from Muskogee?’ It took them both a minute or so to come up with the name. They said, ‘Bass Reeves.’ ”

The memory slipped away for a couple of decades. After graduating from high school, Burton moved to Chicago, where he eventually earned a master’s degree in African American studies and played percussion in jazz bands. In 1985 he was in his mid-thirties, working as an assistant dean at Loyola University, when he returned to Oklahoma for a family reunion. One of the attendees mentioned he was from Reeves Addition, a neighborhood in Muskogee, and said it was named after Bass Reeves. Burton’s curiosity was piqued. He decided to dedicate a story to Reeves in the column he wrote for a Black newspaper in the Chicago area.  

“I had never heard of a neighborhood being named for a lawman, Black or white,” Burton said. He asked his cousins to track down as many old-timers with stories about Reeves as they could find. Meanwhile, he contacted the library at Northeastern State University, in the town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to see if it had any information regarding Reeves Addition. A librarian promised to do some research and report back.

Over the next year or so, several Muskogee elders shared their stories with Burton. Over and over, he heard tales of this Black deputy marshal who arrested Black, Native, and white outlaws. “And I was getting really perturbed with this because it didn’t make no sense,” Burton said. He had relatives who worked in law enforcement. Because of segregation, they were able to arrest only Black folks. Burton’s cousin, a Chicago police officer in the mid-sixties, told him that he couldn’t even pick up a white body to place it on a gurney. Sure, Burton thought, Reeves had been a lawman, but there was no way he’d done the things these people were claiming. “I thanked them for the stories. But I said, ‘If this man was as good as what they’re saying, everybody would know about him.’ ”  

His suspicions seemed to be confirmed when a packet finally showed up from the Northeastern State library containing research indicating that Reeves Addition—a predominantly Black community then and now—was named not for the Black deputy marshal but, rather, a white banker named Ira Reeves. Burton was ready to give up but decided to first contact Paul Stewart, an elderly man who had opened a small museum in Denver dedicated to chronicling the Black experience in the West. “I called Mr. Stewart and asked if he knew of any Black lawmen of any note in the Wild West,” Burton said. “And the first thing out of his mouth was ‘Bass Reeves.’ ” 

Stewart couldn’t offer any details about Reeves, but he suggested that Burton get in touch with another Denver resident, a Reverend Haskell Shoeboot. When the 98-year-old part-Cherokee, part-Black man answered the phone, “he sounded like he’d been dead for five years,” Burton said. “He talked real kind of hoarse.” When Burton told him he was looking for information on Reeves, Shoeboot suddenly lit up. “He went on to tell me that Bass could outride, outshoot, outrope, outfight—similar to what the other old folks had told me before. But there was nothing I could do with that. He must have intuitively understood that he wasn’t doing enough. He said, ‘I’ll tell you something I seen with my own eyes.’ ”

Shoeboot told Burton that back in 1904 or 1905 he drove a one-horse wagon for Bud Ledbetter, a famous white Muskogee lawman. Ledbetter was leading a posse at Gibson Station, roughly ten miles north of Muskogee, in pursuit of a white outlaw. The posse had pinned the man down but had used up most of their ammo. Ledbetter ordered someone to go find Reeves. The deputy marshal arrived just as the sun started to set. With darkness coming on, the outlaw took off running across a field. Ledbetter hollered, at the top of his voice, “Get ’im, Bass!” Coolly and calmly, Reeves responded, “I will break his neck.” He raised his Winchester rifle, fired, and struck the moving target just below his skull at about four hundred yards—a feat that would be impressive even today, with a modern tripod-mounted sniper rifle and scope. 

“Well, the first thing that came to my mind was ‘This guy’s lying,’ ” Burton continued. “I just wanted to get some information, and Shoeboot just told me the biggest lie I ever heard in my life.” But over the next few days, he couldn’t stop thinking about what the old man had said. Burton contacted the U.S. Marshals Service office, in Washington, D.C., and asked if anyone there had ever heard of Bass Reeves. “And they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re aware of him. He was a great lawman. We don’t have anything written about him, but in the U.S. Marshals Service, he’s well known.’ ” Burton was shocked. He decided right then to find out everything he could about Reeves. It wouldn’t be easy.

I am sorry, we didn’t keep Black people’s history” is what a member of one Oklahoma historical society told Burton when he first started digging for details about Reeves. Undeterred, Burton made frequent trips, riding Greyhound buses to archives in Norman, Oklahoma; Fort Smith; Fort Worth; and plenty of small towns in between. His kitchen table was piled high with court documents and copies of yellowed newspapers. “Information that could be located on Reeves was like a rare jewel,” he later wrote, but he continued mining for scraps of the truth. Slowly, Reeves began to emerge from the mist. 

Reeves was most likely born in July 1838, in Crawford County, in northwestern Arkansas. He and his mother, Paralee Stewart, were enslaved by an Arkansas farmer and state legislator named William Steele Reeves. (Bass, like many enslaved children, was given the surname of his enslaver.) Shortly after Texas entered the Union, in 1845, William loaded thirty covered wagons and resettled near the town of Sherman, just south of the Red River, across from the Chickasaw Nation. “Bass always felt he was a Texan,” Burton told me. “The way he carried himself was Texan, and he had good relations with people from Texas.” 

According to family lore, Reeves first worked as a water boy in the fields, where he kept himself entertained by singing ballads about outlaws, inventing lyrics so gruesome they worried his mother. He later became a blacksmith’s helper and was eventually made William’s personal valet, performing a range of duties, from coachman to bodyguard. While Reeves was denied a traditional education, as the slaveholder’s “companion” he was taught to ride and handle firearms. He proved so gifted with a rifle that William entered him in shooting contests. (Legend has it that as an adult Reeves was banned from such competitions in order to give others a fighting chance.)

At the outset of the Civil War, William’s third son, George, enlisted with the Confederate forces as a colonel in the Eleventh Texas Cavalry. He took Reeves with him to the front lines. Reeves later told reporters that he had been at the battles of Pea Ridge, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. According to Reeves’s youngest daughter, at some point during the war, he and the colonel got crossways during a card game. Reeves “laid him out cold with his fist and then made a run for the Indian Territory.” (After the war, George Reeves returned to Texas, where he served as a state legislator; he was Speaker of the House when he was bitten by a rabid dog and died of hydrophobia. Reeves County, in West Texas, was named after him.)

As Burton researched Bass Reeves, he realized that to understand the deputy marshal’s life, he would need to study the history of Oklahoma and the Indian Territory. He learned that the Five Tribes who dominated the Territory—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—had been relocated there after the government forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands in the Southeast. The Territory had been the final stop on the Trail of Tears. There, each tribe operated as its own nation. They formed governments and court systems and established a mounted force known as the Lighthorse police. 

They also practiced slavery. When the Civil War began, 14 percent of the Territory’s residents were enslaved Americans of African descent. Though some chiefs fought for the Union and others abstained entirely from the war, the Five Tribes initially sided with the Confederacy. “This was all new to me,” Burton said. “I grew up in the fifties and sixties and watched the celluloid West. This research took me to the real West, and it was almost like The Twilight Zone because it was completely different from what I imagined.” 

map of indian territory

Little is known about the years Reeves spent hiding in the Indian Territory. Had he been caught, he could have been killed. What we do know is that those years were formative: he got to know the languages and customs of the tribes, became intimately familiar with the terrain, and, in 1864, married a Texas woman named Jennie. By 1870, five years after the Civil War ended, the couple was raising four children on a little farm in Van Buren, just across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith. This is where Reeves got his first taste of police work. Deputy marshals riding into the region knew that Reeves could navigate both the social and geographic challenges of the Territory and hired him to work as their posseman, or guide.

No place in America before or since was like the Indian Territory following the Civil War. At first the land was held predominantly by Native peoples, both those who were indigenous to the area—the Osage, Caddo, and others—and those who had been displaced there, such as the Five Tribes. After emancipation, the formerly enslaved residents of the Territory became known as freedmen, and many started their own communities. But the Territory was increasingly carved up by federal policy, including in 1887 by the Dawes Act, which allotted a certain amount of land to tribal members and opened the rest of the Territory to non-Indigenous settlers. 

There were some who dreamed that the Territory could become a predominantly Black state. For a time, this seemed a real possibility. Thousands of recently emancipated Black men and women from all over the South migrated there. (“Going to the nation, baby / Going to the Territorywent the refrain of one early blues song.) Booker T. Washington toured the Territory in 1905 and reported, “During the course of my visit I had an opportunity for the first time to see the three races—the Negro, the Indian, and the white man—living side by side, each in sufficient numbers to make their influence felt in the communities of which they were a part, and in the Territory as a whole.” More than fifty Black towns thrived. Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” would become a hub of burgeoning Black-owned businesses—until the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when white supremacists, aided by local cops, gunned down Black citizens and burned the Greenwood neighborhood. 

In truth, Washington’s observation applied only to certain pockets of the Territory. Many of the newly arrived Black pioneers who came with grand aspirations were met with scorn—and sometimes violence—from white settlers, as well as from the Native groups and freedmen, who referred to the newcomers as “State Negroes” or “Watchina, the white man’s Negro.” Tensions rose between the various groups.

So did crime. While the Five Tribes ran their own court systems, their jurisdictions were limited to just their citizens. Criminals from Texas and elsewhere exploited this loophole. The Territory soon became a haven for the worst outlaws in the West. Historian Glenn Shirley described the Territory at this time as “a maelstrom of racial hatred and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and pillage became common offenses. Killers traveled in gangs.” 

One saying at the time went, “No Sunday West of St. Louis, No God West of Fort Smith.” The Muskogee Phoenix published an editorial in 1896 lamenting the Territory’s horrific homicide rate: “No state in the Union furnished half so many murders as the Indian Territory, population compared.” The federal government realized something had to be done about the lawlessness. Its answer was to establish federal courts and marshals in Fort Smith and, later, Paris. 

In 1875 Isaac Parker was appointed to the bench in Fort Smith. Determined to bring law and order to the vast territorial land his court oversaw, the hard-nosed judge set out to recruit two hundred new deputy marshals. Records indicate that only fifty or so men were ever brave or foolish enough to enlist at any given time. The pay was good, if you survived long enough to spend it. (Reeves’s total haul of $3,575 in 1883 would have been about $94,000 today.) The Marshals Service is the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency, founded in 1789, during the George Washington administration. Since then, of the 302 officers who have died in the line of duty, a third were killed in the Territories. Around fifty of the thousand or so deputy marshals who rode for Judge Parker were Black, many of them renowned in their day for their prowess with firearms and their skill at tracking down outlaws. Bass Reeves was among the first to join their ranks. 

Reeves served as a deputy marshal for the next three decades, first working out of the courts in Fort Smith, then Paris, and finally in Muskogee. His career was full of close scrapes, epic shoot-outs, cunning arrests, and tragic twists. “I would tell myself, ‘This sounds more like a cartoon than a real story,’ ” Burton said about the accounts he unearthed. Yet the historical evidence mounted. Newspapers of the era often printed the ethnicities of prisoners booked at Fort Smith, confirming that Reeves had arrested white criminals—many of them, in fact. Even parts of Reverend Shoeboot’s wild story were corroborated. And if that neck shot had sounded too fantastic to be true, well, it wasn’t the only time Reeves supposedly hit a target from long range. Just ask Jim Webb. 

Burton poured years into this project, eventually amassing a vast amount of research, from firsthand and secondhand oral accounts to official court records and primary documents on Reeves and other Black deputy marshals, as well as on the Black and Native desperadoes of the Indian Territory. In 1991 he published Black, Red, and Deadly, the first book to focus on the exploits of Black and Native outlaws and lawmen in the West. The longest chapter belonged to Reeves. Slowly, word of the Black deputy marshal began trickling out. 

The tap opened further in 2005, when Reeves’s great-nephew, a retired federal judge named Paul L. Brady, published The Black Badge, a biography of Reeves full of colorful (but mostly unverified) family anecdotes. The following year, acclaimed young adult author Gary Paulsen released a partly fictional imagining of Reeves’s life titled The Legend of Bass Reeves. And three years later came Bad News for Outlaws, a children’s book about Reeves by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, which won several major awards. In 2006 Burton published his magnum opus, Black Gun, Silver Star, easily the most authoritative biography of Reeves to date. “If Reeves were fictional,” Burton wrote in the intro, “he would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger.” 

Finally, the folks in Fort Smith took notice. 

Baridi Nkokheli in an orange blazer.
Baridi Nkokheli near his New Jersey home.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

When Baridi Nkokheli first came to Fort Smith, in 2005, he had never heard of Bass Reeves. He’d moved there to take over the city’s sanitation department, where he’d oversee the largest landfill in Arkansas. Nkokheli had gotten into solid-waste management as a trash collector back in 1978, riding on the backs of garbage trucks through Houston. He was embarrassed by the job at first, until a couple of colleagues inspired him with stories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He worked his way up the ranks into management in Houston and later Durham, North Carolina, before taking the job in Fort Smith. His appointment marked the first time the city had hired a Black department head. 

Around the time Nkokheli arrived, a group of locals began organizing to commission a statue honoring the town’s frontier history. Zachary Taylor, the twelfth U.S. president, had briefly commanded the garrison at Fort Smith in the early 1840s and was originally chosen for the honor. But the idea failed to stoke much interest. (Taylor hadn’t exactly been effusive about his tenure at Fort Smith.) Then came Burton’s book and the wave of media attention for Reeves. The initiative had found a new hero. Now the group needed to raise some cash. 

In 2007 the group approached Nkokheli with their plan for a Reeves monument. They told him about Reeves and Judge Parker’s court and their importance to American history. And, they added, Nkokheli looked an awful lot like Reeves. “At the time, I had one of these big mustaches. It looked like something you would wear from a seventies porno,” Nkokheli told me. He was also tall, six foot four and broad-shouldered. He couldn’t deny the resemblance. The group made their plea: Would he become the living embodiment of Reeves and help them fund-raise for the statue?

Nkokheli had never done any reenactments, but he was familiar with giving presentations, especially to youngsters. Back in Houston, he’d spent time in schools in low-income neighborhoods, showing students his personal collection of paintings by contemporary Black artists. “These kids wouldn’t have gone to the Museum of Fine Arts or the Contemporary Arts Museum, so I brought my art to them,” he said. Seeing the Reeves promotion as a similar opportunity, Nkokheli agreed. Wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, a long tan duster, dark pinstriped breeches tucked into leather riding boots, and a silver star pinned to his vest, Nkokheli resurrected Bass Reeves. Over the next seven years, he appeared in character at elementary schools, college classes, conferences, and business luncheons, and in front of buses full of tourists. He even met with Morgan Freeman at the Little Rock airport, all while preaching the “gospel of Bass,” mostly from “the canon that was the book by Art Burton.” 

Black and white photo of Baridi Nkokheli dressed as Reeves.
Nkokheli, middle, dressed as Reeves, in 2007.Kaia Larsen/Times Record/AP

For Nkokheli, the role came to mean more than drumming up money for a statue. His father had been a lawman. Henry Wesley Kellough joined the Los Angeles Police Department as a vice officer in the late fifties. An Air Force veteran of the Korean War, Kellough was awarded the LAPD Medal of Valor in 1962, after he helped rescue people from a burning building. He was promoted to sergeant. And that’s when, Nkokheli says, the trouble started. 

One November night in 1963, Kellough was driving home from work when his Corvair careered off the San Bernardino Freeway, struck a light pole, and erupted into flames. Kellough was killed in the crash. 

Nkokheli, who was four at the time, has no memories of his father. But he does remember how his family received the news. He was in Houston, visiting his mother’s family for Thanksgiving, when two HPD officers rang his grandmother’s doorbell. “I remember the screams and the crying,” he said. “And then I also remember the funeral: the flag-draped coffin, the folding of the flag, the presentation of it to my mother, and the gun salute at the cemetery.” He says it wasn’t until years later that he learned his father’s death was not an accident. 

After the crash, Nkokheli says, Thomas Bradley, a Black cop who had been his father’s mentor and would later become the mayor of Los Angeles, informed his mother that Sergeant Kellough had been drugged by white fellow officers because he was “a Negro who didn’t know his place.” Fearing further retaliation, Nkokheli’s mother took the family underground. By then she’d joined the Pan-African movement, and as a way to camouflage themselves and honor their African heritage, the Kelloughs adopted new Swahili names. At five years old, Kevin Wesley Kellough became
Tokunboh-Baridi Nkokheli. 

Years later, Nkokheli’s mother was allegedly paid a settlement by the City of Los Angeles and in 1971 moved the family back to her hometown of Houston. (Neither the police department nor the city returned requests for comment; Bradley is deceased.) The story was revealed to him, over many years and in pieces, by his aunt. His mother rarely spoke of it. “We suffered as a family,” Nkokheli said. “But one thing I credit my mother for: she wanted to ensure that her two sons, when we got old enough, wouldn’t be burdened with hate or anger or be depressed or feel like we were defeated.” 

Nkokheli’s journey from trash collector to administrator culminated in his leadership role at Fort Smith. And when Nkokheli put on the boots and the badge and became Reeves, he was doing more than resurrecting a legend. He was honoring the legacy of his father—another forgotten hero.

On a hot day in May 2012, the statue of Bass Reeves, sitting tall in his bronze saddle, headed east out of Oklahoma and crossed the Arkansas River into downtown Fort Smith. It came to rest on Garrison Avenue, just a few blocks from the spot where a white mob lynched a Black man named Sanford Lewis exactly one hundred years before. (No marker acknowledges this event.) A thousand residents showed up to welcome the Reeves statue, as if the deputy marshal himself were returning from another successful manhunt in the Territory. The event kicked off ten days of celebrations across the city, culminating in appearances by two of the men most responsible for bringing Reeves back to Arkansas: Art Burton and Baridi Nkokheli. Meanwhile, the cameras were rolling on another project that would spread Reeves’s story like a prairie fire. 

After years of false starts and personnel changes, filming was underway for Disney’s revival of The Lone Ranger, which had first debuted on the Detroit radio station WXYZ in January 1933. It became the most popular show on the airwaves, broadcast nationwide to 20 million Americans who were tuning in three times a week. “No secular myth has ever grasped the popular fancy with such strength,” raved the Saturday Evening Post. The Lone Ranger first made his way to the movies in 1938, and in 1949 the TV show kicked off as one of the most popular series on ABC. Now the Disney film was generating press well ahead of its July 2013 release date. For one thing, there was considerable backlash against Disney’s casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, the masked hero’s Native American sidekick. Indigenous actors had played Tonto since the first Lone Ranger TV show. The movie’s budget was also turning heads. By the time production wrapped, Disney had spent north of $250 million, making it the most expensive western ever filmed. (It later earned the distinction of being the second-biggest box-office flop of all time, after John Carter.)

And there was another controversy grabbing headlines: Was the real Lone Ranger Black?

The idea that one of the most famous western characters of all time was based on a little-known Black deputy marshal was tantalizing.

The question had first been posed in John Ravage’s 1997 book Black Pioneers. The history volume includes a brief chapter chronicling the life and exploits of Reeves. In a footnote, Ravage asks, “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for one of the most famous western radio characters of all time: the Lone Ranger?”

Burton brought this theory to a wider audience when he published Black Gun, Silver Star. He begins the biography with a chapter called “The Lone Ranger and Other Stories,” in which he recounts some of the folktales he collected from old-timers in Oklahoma—tales of Reeves’s almost superhuman strength, his clever ruses to apprehend villains, and, of course, his legendary marksmanship. Burton also uses the introductory chapter to take Ravage’s hypothesis a step further, expanding on the similarities that existed between the real-life deputy marshal and the fictional Ranger. 

Burton points out that Reeves sometimes donned disguises (a traveling hobo, a trail-weary cowhand, a dirt farmer) to nab felons, a callout to the black mask worn by the Lone Ranger to hide his identity. And he notes that Reeves often worked in the Territory with a Native posseman by his side. In fact, the fictional Tonto was supposed to be a member of the Potawatomi, one of the tribes of the Indian Territory.

Court records confirmed that at one point, Reeves rode a gray or white horse, the same color as the Lone Ranger’s famous steed. (“Hi-yo, Silver!”) Burton also found a story in which Reeves paid a silver dollar to a family who helped him; the Lone Ranger left silver bullets as his calling card. Even their last names were similar: before the vicious ambush that forced the Lone Ranger to go undercover as a masked vigilante, he was a Texas Ranger named John Reid. While Burton allowed that no definitive proof linked the two, he declared, “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” 

Now that the movie was stoking renewed attention to the fictional character, Burton’s theory suddenly found a foothold. The idea that one of the most famous western characters of all time was based on a little-known Black deputy marshal was tantalizing. CNN asked, “Was an African American Cop the Real Lone Ranger?” The Telegraph of London sent a reporter “on the trail of the real Lone Ranger.” The American Heroes Channel aired an episode on Reeves. An episode of Bill O’Reilly’s popular Legends & Lies series ran with the Lone Ranger discourse. And, of course, Hollywood came knocking. Morgan Freeman optioned Burton’s book with the intent of turning it into a miniseries for HBO.

It looked as if Burton’s decades-long dream—to see Reeves get his own Hollywood epic and become an icon of the West—was coming true. In 2015, as buzz continued to build around Reeves, Burton told an Arkansas publication,“This is like a rodeo, and we are in the chute. Once we kick that door and that chute opens, I think that Bass Reeves is going to take off. He’s going to be bigger or as big as anybody in western lore.”

A still from the fifties-era Lone Ranger TV series.
A still from the fifties-era Lone Ranger TV series. ABC/Photofest

Today, it’s widely accepted that Reeves was the real Lone Ranger. As University of Arkansas–Fort Smith anthropology professor Daniel Maher says, it has become “a social fact.” Maher, who is white, wrote about the myth of the frontier and its ties to tourism for his doctoral dissertation at UAFS. Having lived near Fort Smith for decades, he was both fascinated and repelled by the city’s exploitation of its violent frontier history to lure tourists; instead of presenting a complex historical truth, it played up and perpetuated the mythic version (hosting year-round shooting reenactments; decorating coffee mugs and T-shirts with nooses emblazoned with “Hang around Fort Smith for awhile”). But he didn’t decide to study the phenomenon formally until he met Baridi Nkokheli. 

In 2011 Nkokheli gave a few presentations at UAFS. He delivered the first in his Reeves regalia, recounting the life of the deputy marshal. But for the second, he appeared as himself, and for the first time he spoke publicly about his own past, including his father’s death. Maher had seen Nkokheli perform as Reeves before, but something shifted when he heard Nkokheli talk about his upbringing. As photos of Nkokheli’s father in his Air Force and police uniforms were projected on a screen, Maher was nearly moved to tears. His father had been born around the same time and had also been an Air Force veteran.

Maher also realized that Nkokheli’s personal connection to the Reeves story complicated his own cynical outlook on the motivations of frontier tourism. Maher approached Nkokheli after the second presentation, and over time the two became friends. Inspired by Nkokheli, Maher decided to complete his PhD. As he dug further into Fort Smith’s frontier history for his doctoral research (he dedicated his dissertation to Sergeant Kellough), he began sharing with Nkokheli the concerns he was developing about the popular narrative surrounding Reeves. 

Maher was becoming skeptical about some of the most commonly repeated aspects of Reeves’s story, such as the claim that he arrested more than three thousand criminals during his career and killed fourteen men in the line of duty. The first figure could be traced back to a single Chickasaw Enterprise article from 1901 that says Reeves “claims . . . he has arrested more than three thousand men and women.” When I asked David Kennedy, at the U.S. Marshals Museum, about this, he answered bluntly, “It’s not three thousand.” As for the number of men Reeves killed? “I’m thinking maybe seven,” Kennedy said, pointing to the available records. (Burton thinks fourteen is a conservative estimate and that Reeves killed more than twenty men.) 

Maher also doesn’t believe Reeves was illiterate, a claim that is regurgitated in almost every story about him. In fact, he accurately served written warrants for more than three decades. Maher suggests that detail is included so often because “it is proof that if a Black man just works hard enough, then he can succeed, no matter if he was a former slave, a discriminated-against Black man, and an illiterate to boot.” 

Then there’s the Lone Ranger theory. Maher and others have shown that each connection that Burton makes is tenuous at best. Reeves, for example, was far from the only lawman of his era to use disguises. Nor was Reeves unique in his choice of a Native sidekick. Many lawmen, Black and white, depended on Indigenous guides to help them navigate the Territory, as did the U.S. Cavalry, which often used Apache scouts. And, anyway, Tonto didn’t show up in the original radio program until episode eleven, when the writers realized they needed someone for the Lone Ranger to talk to. 

As for the white horse, Reeves would have ridden hundreds of horses throughout his life; he’s best known for riding a bay or sorrel with a blaze face, not a white horse. And the silver dollar that Burton cites as a parallel to the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets? Silver dollars were standard currency during Reeves’s career. 

What makes the theory even more improbable is the extensive correspondence between Fran Striker, the writer most responsible for dreaming up the Lone Ranger radio character, and his cocreators, George W. Trendle and James Jewell. The author Martin Grams Jr. has pointed out that their letters plainly record the evolution of the character. Trendle, the station owner of Detroit’s WXYZ, where the show originally aired, made it clear from the outset that he wanted a western hero with swashbuckling traits, picturing him “as a composite of Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro.”

One early letter says that the Lone Ranger will be publicized as a “Tom Mix type.” Mix was the most famous western actor of the era, the John Wayne of his day, and had starred in the 1923 film The Lone Star Ranger, which was a film adaptation of Zane Gray’s 1915 novel of the same name. That book had been inspired by and dedicated to real-life Texas Ranger John Hughes. Incidentally, there is no Bass Reeves equivalent among the Rangers. Texas’s oldest law enforcement agency didn’t hire a Black ranger until 1988—more than 150 years after its founding, and 24 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

Most likely, the three white men who conjured the Lone Ranger from pulp magazines and Hollywood tropes had never heard of Reeves. Apart from a few passing mentions of Reeves by elderly white marshals recollecting their glory days to local newspapers, not much was written about Reeves from his death, in 1910, until a few academic articles appeared starting in 1971. It wasn’t until Burton came along that folks in the general public became aware that the lawman had even existed.

So what does it matter whether Reeves is the foundation for a fictional character whose cultural relevance has largely ridden off into the sunset? 

Some find the whole discussion beside the point. Paul Brady, Reeves’s 93-year-old great-nephew, told the Telegraph in 2013, “It’s not acceptable to compare him to a fictional character. This was a real man who never had the distinction he deserved for many, many years.” 

Maher agrees. “The Lone Ranger makes him a white guy,” he told me. “It fundamentally denies him his Blackness. Denies him his humanity.” By distorting Reeves into the Lone Ranger, his narrative becomes “more readily digestible,” he said. 

“I believe that Bass can stand alone,” Nkokheli told me. “To tie a fictional character with Bass Reeves in order to give him some kind of validation, to me, is bullshit.”

Burton, who got this whole conversation started, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more forgiving. “If the Lone Ranger analogy will help people understand who Bass is and what he did and make his name connect somehow,” Burton told me, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” Burton was born in 1949, the same year The Lone Ranger debuted on television. “It was on TV all through my formative years. When I was growing up, there was a ton of westerns on television. But the Lone Ranger was definitely in the forefront of those, because as a kid I liked that he stood for truth and justice and the American way of life.” But the Lone Ranger didn’t look like him. Neither did any of the other cowboys on TV. Burton didn’t have any Black heroes he could point to, and eventually Reeves filled that spot for him. 

Burton’s not alone. Donald W. Washington, the current director of the U.S. Marshals Service, grew up in the town of Sulphur Springs, some forty miles south of the federal courthouse Reeves worked out of in Paris. In the mid-sixties, his mother insisted that he and his siblings leave the segregated Black school they’d been attending to integrate into one of the town’s white schools. “I understand the need for a kid to have a hero-like figure that he desires to mimic, to inspire him to go forth and do great things,” he told me. “I don’t know if there has been a solid connection between Bass and the Lone Ranger,” he continued. “But I also don’t know of any other person in American history who more solidly fits the definition or the image of the Lone Ranger than Bass.” 

Bass Reeves statue
The Reeves statue, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Earlier this year, when I rented a four-wheel-drive truck to make the icy haul up to Fort Smith, the attendant who walked me around the vehicle was a young Black man. We chatted while he looked for dents, and he asked where I was traveling. I said I was headed to Arkansas, on the trail of Bass Reeves, one of the first Black deputy marshals. He said he’d never heard of Reeves. I told him some have speculated he was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. “Oh!” he said. “I know exactly who you’re talking about.”

Today, more Americans are becoming aware of the role Black pioneers played in shaping the West. One of the most commonly cited statistics is that during the golden age of the cattle drives (1865–1890), at least one in four cowboys was Black. But even that underplays the historical truth: that the West was a vibrant, racially fluid place. 

Two of the ten U.S. Cavalry regiments that rode and fought across the West comprised solely Black troops. There were Black mountain men, explorers, homesteaders, entrepreneurs, and, as Reeves reminds us, peace officers. During Reconstruction, the Texas Rangers were briefly disbanded, and during that time, the Texas State Police were instated in their place. Black officers accounted for between a third and a half of this short-lived force. At least 15,000 Chinese workers helped complete the greatest engineering feat of the era: the transcontinental railroad. And these examples don’t even skim the surface of the history of Hispanic and Native peoples who called the West home long before westward expansion by white settlers. 

Thanks to the recent work of scholars, activists, filmmakers, journalists, artists, and photographers, the Black cowboy in particular has seen a resurgence. From Compton to Harlem, Houston to Chicago, and in rural places everywhere in between, Black cowboys and cowgirls have become evocative symbols of America’s present, while offering a glimpse into a past we should have always known. 

Even western movies, a profound influence on Americans’ sense of our past, have lately started to portray more Black characters in both the modern and historic West. The epic film about Bass Reeves that Burton longs for, though, has yet to materialize. There have been a couple of B movies about Reeves made in recent years, and a few others are in the works. Burton calls the latest, Hell on the Border, “horrendous.” Of course, even bad movies can help spread the word about Reeves. One day last year I stopped at a cigar shop in Odessa to pick up some smokes for my dad, who lives nearby. Everyone inside was glued to a TV, watching Hell on the Border. “It’s about an African American deputy,” the woman ringing me up said when I commented on the movie. “Based on a true story.”

Black cowboys and cowgirls have become evocative symbols of America’s present, while offering a glimpse into a past we should have always known.

But whose truth is it? Hell on the Border, like most of what’s been written and filmed about Reeves, is most interested in portraying Reeves’s shoot-’em-up highlight reel. Not that this is unique to Reeves. The West’s most famous (or infamous) figures—Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane—have all received the same treatment. While that’s fattened the wallets of novelists and Hollywood, the myth of the West has masked a more complicated narrative. 

I’ve felt the pull of that myth since childhood. As I was growing up in West Texas with a cowgirl granny and a horse-training grandpa, John Wayne occupied a place in my heart just below Jesus and about even with the Holy Spirit. I remember bouncing on my dad’s knee while he hummed the galloping William Tell Overture, better known as the Lone Ranger theme song. Many of my heroes were cowboys, and a lot of them still are. As a kid, I took for granted that most of those cowboys looked like me; only later did I discover the painful reality that the Code of the West, while admirable, was often eclipsed by codified prejudice and bigotry. 

On the job, Reeves had to navigate deeply entrenched racism all while dodging bullets and wrangling bad guys. The silver star that adorned his uniform was the same badge worn by the U.S. Marshals as they were enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, which, only a few years earlier, could have cost Reeves his freedom and his life. By telling Reeves’s full story, we can both revel in the romanticism of his exploits and still find room to grapple with societal sins that continue to plague us today. On the other hand, conflating Reeves with the Lone Ranger—or telling his story the same way we’ve portrayed white heroes of the West—threatens to perpetuate the same old myths. And there are those who feel this is erasing Reeves’s history all over again.

Back when Nkokheli was still raising money for the Reeves monument, he and Burton would sometimes drive together to events. The two would talk about Reeves, mulling what he might’ve felt as a Black man upholding the law in the nineteenth century. 

Such conversations rarely came up when they spoke to crowds. “There were times when people asked me directly at some of my presentations, what did I think [about Reeves and his legacy]? That gave me an opening to use my own example as an American of African descent,” Nkokheli said. “But the audiences were mainly white, and they weren’t really interested in hearing that. They were more interested in hearing the Wild, Wild West.” 

Nkokheli never pressed the issue. He didn’t want to stir up trouble. 

But in 2009, trouble found Nkokheli. At a public meeting of Fort Smith’s Board of Directors and city department heads, one of the directors told Nkokheli, in a heated exchange, “You have one master, and that is the City of Fort Smith.” The racist overtones of the director’s language made news. Nkokheli was upset by the incident, but he downplayed it with the local press, saying, “I would hope it doesn’t put me in the light that suggests I have to be defended, or that my feelings were hurt, or that I’m an angry Black man, because I’m not.”

The director apologized, but a month later, at a city meeting, he distributed an email he’d received from one of his constituents: “You used the term ‘master’ in a manner that has been correct English for hundreds of years and if blacks take umbrage at it, they are revealing their ignorance of the language. Everyone who works for a salary or wage has a master! All salary/wage earners are modern-day slaves to the all mighty dollar, so the blacks need to grow up and enter the 21st Century. I, for one, have never owned a slave nor do I want one. They are too expensive to maintain and machines do the job faster and better than they would.” 

Maher watched this unfold with disgust, later writing in his thesis, “The same Fort Smith that lauded and fawned over Baridi Nkokheli’s efforts for reviving the memory of Bass Reeves, simultaneously allowed such racial insults to be publicly put upon him . . . In the lived out social reality of Fort Smith, the mythic image of a subservient black man in a white world prevailed.” 

Nkokheli did his best to ignore the conflict. He kept working his city job and fund-raising for the Reeves statue. After the $300,000 needed to erect the statue was raised, though, Nkokheli sensed that he’d become disposable. So long as he didn’t allow his responsibilities to the city slip, he was still allowed to leave work to continue performing as Reeves. But he was rarely compensated for his efforts, much less reimbursed for mileage or for dry-cleaning his costume. 

When he finally asked to be paid for his trouble, he says he was accused of trying to profit off Reeves’s legacy. “I realized a little too late that it was all right as long as I was sacrificing and doing all these things at my own expense, on my own time,” he told me. “I had to back out. And when I did, people got upset. People were mad at me. I didn’t have enough appreciation for all the good things they did for me, for letting me do all these things, as if somehow that was my reward. And I realized that what I hoped—and I think what Bass hoped—is through our sacrifice and work we’d be accepted and loved and appreciated and stood up for. But that was not the case at all. It was basically transactional.”

Nkokheli put on the Reeves costume for the last time in 2014. The following year, he was fired. His termination letter stated that Nkokheli had been ousted for insubordination and for violating the city’s code of business conduct, alleging that he’d taken a personal loan from a vendor ten years prior. Nkokheli denies ever taking an improper loan, and a city official with knowledge of the situation told me that the insubordination charge was overblown—that Nkokheli had been treated unfairly. The Fort Smith police chief, who later resigned over racist remarks, opened a criminal investigation into Nkokheli’s conduct, but no charges were ever brought against him. Nkokheli considered suing the city to get his job back, but, he says, the attorneys he hired wanted to focus on race, which made him uneasy. 

He was heartbroken when no one came to his defense. Instead, he said, one night he was called into a private meeting with a few of the city’s old-money power brokers. They poured him a glass of bourbon and advised him to return to Texas quietly. Rather than stay and fight, he left. 

Almost six years later, Nkokheli has yet to hold as high a position as he did in Fort Smith. He’s bounced around to different jobs, from Baltimore to Maine, but his reputation has been tarnished. If you do an internet search for Nkokheli, the articles are still there, a blight on his name, still haunting him today. 

Even now, Nkokheli is hesitant to tell his story. “I don’t want to come across as bitter,” he said. He worried that Fort Smith would get “smudged collectively” in this piece. “I joined [the fund-raising effort] because I was impressed that these were white people trying to do this for this Black man. To me, that’s something that should be celebrated in Fort Smith, especially in Arkansas—that any town would want to celebrate the legacy of a Black, formerly enslaved man.”

But Nkokheli also knew that telling only a triumphant story of the Reeves statue would be like celebrating the achievements of his father while leaving out his alleged drugging at the hands of racist fellow cops. It’d be like telling the story of Bass Reeves as a romanticized, guns-blazing tale of heroism without mentioning the tragedy and injustices that marred much of his life. 

Bass Reeves in the doorway of a boxcar flanked by other U.S. Marshals with shotguns.
Reeves stands in the doorway of a boxcar on the MKT Railroad line, guarding a shipment with fellow lawmen, circa 1900.Courtesy of Art Burton

One of the sad paradoxes of the West is that, as the frontier became more settled, it actually became less safe for Black residents. In the Oklahoma and Indian territories, white racial violence grew more frequent and savage. The longer Reeves served as a deputy marshal, the more overt discrimination he likely would have experienced. In 1884, the same year that he shot down Jim Webb, Reeves was on his way back to Fort Smith, hauling a wagonload of prisoners. He was lying next to a campfire one evening when his rifle discharged, striking and killing his cook, a Black man named William Leach. At first, the shooting was deemed an accident or, according to some accounts, self-defense. But when the marshal overseeing Reeves’s district was replaced by a former Confederate officer, Reeves was charged with Leach’s murder—nearly two years after the incident had occurred. Reeves was arrested and spent six months in jail before going on trial. He was eventually acquitted and returned to work.

But things were never the same. Reeves had been forced to spend his life savings on his legal defense. That included selling the farm in Van Buren. By 1893, Reeves had left his wife and kids back in Fort Smith to work in Paris. When Jennie died of cancer three years later, Reeves wasn’t around to bury her. His son-in-law signed for the burial expenses. Of the couple’s eleven children, three sons would be dead by 1903, and another three would wind up in jail or prison. One of them Reeves arrested himself.

In 1902 Reeves’s 21-year-old son, Benjamin, shot and killed his wife. The most well-trod telling of the story suggests that when Reeves learned that a warrant had been issued for his son, he asked the marshal to give him the writ. Benjamin was later sentenced to life in prison.

The episode is often cited as an example of Reeves’s unfailing devotion to the law. Maybe so. But in the end, it wouldn’t matter how devoted Reeves was to the badge. At that moment, the law was already turning against him. 

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that “separate but equal” segregation of the races was constitutional, thus upholding Jim Crow laws throughout the South. It’s a testament to his mettle that, even after the passage of Plessy, Reeves was able to arrest a white landowner for allegedly taking part in the mob murder of a white woman and a Black man who had been living together. According to Burton, Reeves was the only known Black officer of his day to bring a white suspect to justice for the lynching of a Black American. 

Even at 67 years old, Reeves was still a formidable officer. According to a 1906 article in the Tahlequah Arrow, “One of the most remarkable examples of the devotion to duty was furnished at Muskogee the other day when United States Marshal Bass Reeves, while lying in bed dangerously sick with pneumonia, arrested a man and had him taken to jail.” It turned out that a woman had fled to Reeves’s home to escape her husband, who had been chasing her down the street with a knife. When the two burst through the door into his bedroom, Reeves pulled a revolver from under his pillow, and the would-be attacker was quick to surrender.

But Reeves’s authority to make such arrests was coming to an end. In 1907 the Oklahoma and Indian territories entered the Union as Oklahoma, the forty-sixth state. The first statute passed by the new state government was a Jim Crow law. After three decades of serving as a deputy U.S. marshal, Reeves found that his career had abruptly ended.

Reeves took a job with the city police in Muskogee. He patrolled his beat, a stretch of downtown, using a cane to get around, thanks to a bullet still lodged in his thigh from a saloon shootout years earlier. (His assailant was less lucky; when the doctor arrived to treat Reeves’s wound, he asked about the dead man lying on the floor. Reeves explained, “Just another young gunslinger who doubted my ability with these six-guns. He was real fast, but like a lot of them, he couldn’t shoot both fast and straight.”) During his time working as a city cop, it’s said, no crimes were committed on his watch.

Reeves’s health declined toward the end of 1909. He died on January 12, 1910, of kidney disease. His estate came to less than $500. Obituaries ran in the white and Black newspapers of Muskogee and were republished across the nation. Reeves’s funeral was well attended by Black and white folks alike who came to pay their respects to the lawman. 

Today we don’t know where Reeves is buried. Director Washington, at the U.S. Marshals Service, has discussed trying to confirm the location of Reeves’s plot. 

But for Nkokheli, locating a long-lost grave is less important than how we honor Reeves’s legacy. The statue in downtown Fort Smith, he says, is a fine start. 

Back in 2013, Nkokheli’s son, who lived in Texas with his mom, came to visit him in Fort Smith. “I took him to see the monument and see what his old man had done,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. It will be there long after I’m gone.” 

Nkokheli told his son all about Reeves. And he talked about his own father, another proud Black lawman. Nkokheli laughed while recounting this moment to me. His teenage son wasn’t exactly rapt; he didn’t see what the big deal was. But Nkokheli hopes he’ll appreciate it more as he grows older. He hopes it’s a story he’ll tell his own kids one day.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Resurrection of Bass Reeves.” Subscribe today.