Showing posts with label african american. Show all posts
Showing posts with label african american. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Bass Reeves, the Fiercest Lawman in the Old West

Widely considered to be the inspiration behind the fictional Lone Ranger, Bass¹ Reeves lived a larger than life existence of adventure hunting criminals in the old west. One of the first African-American Federal Marshals, Reeves caught more than 3,000 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gunshot wound, or being able to read.

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Bass Reeves, sporting a truly epic
Born in 1838, Bass spent the first few years of his life enslaved in the newly minted state of Arkansas. He and his family were owned by William Reeves, a wealthy farmer and popular southern politician. William Reeves eventually decided to relocate to Texas, and Bass was assigned to be a valet to Reeves' son, George. When George went off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1861, Bass went with him.

Bass' time serving with the Confederacy was brief. Though dates are unsure, it is generally agreed upon that in some point between 1861 and 1862 Bass escaped after an altercation with his master during a card game. From Texas, Bass fled to Indian Country, the land that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

While in Indian Country, Bass became friendly with members of the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Nations, learning their languages, tracking techniques, and fighting for the Union with them.

Bass was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and when the war ended in 1865 he married, bought a farm in Arkansas, and proceeded to have ten children. Bass was a successful farmer, but he was more well known for his skill with languages and knowledge of Indian Country. In 1875 he was made a deputy US Marshal, and charged with the responsibility of cleaning up Indian Country.

Indian Country at the time was a pretty lawless place. Because it wasn't under the authority of any state government criminals could only be prosecuted by the federal government, and could only be chased down by federal authorities. While tribes were allowed to organize their own law enforcement, they only had jurisdiction over Native Americans, leaving white and black criminals the responsibility of the harrassed and understaffed US Marshals.

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Isaac Parker, the 'Hanging Judge'. Parker earned
this epitaph from the many criminals he sentenced
to the noose during his vigorous efforts to rid the
West of crime.
In May of 1875 Isaac Parker, later known as 'the hanging judge' was put in charge of a portion of the west that included Indian Country. He authorized the hire of some 200 deputies, and Bass Reeves was one of the top picks. From there he set out on a more than 30 year career that would see him become one of most famous lawmen of the Old West.

Life as a U.S. Marshal was busy. Bass would spend weeks away from his family, hunting down outlaws. When he finally caught his man, Bass would return to the courthouse at Fort Smith. He would spend a few days with his family back in Arkansas, then head back out.

Bass was at something of a disadvantage when it came to crook catching, because, as a former slave, he had never been taught to read. Because of this, he had to have warrants read to him. Bass would memorize the contents of several warrants before heading out on a manhunt. These manhunts could last months, giving Bass ample time to forget the contents of the warrants, but Bass was a sharp cookie. Despite the fact that he had to rely on his memory, he never brought back the wrong man.

There were times when Bass even used his illiteracy to his benefit. It was well known that Bass couldn't read, and there were several instances of Bass being captured by outlaws, and asking them to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Bass would take advantage of their moment of distraction to draw a gun on them, and take them in.

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Bass Reeves
Bass was bold and imposing, standing at 6'2, but he was also a master of disguise. A famous story recounts how he disguised himself as a bum, dressing himself in rags and a hat riddled with bullet holes. He came up to a homestead belonging to the mother of two outlaws Bass was hunting. He spun a sad story about how he was being hunted by the marshals, and how they had shot the hat right off his head. Sympathetic, the woman let Bass into her home, and suggested that he should team up with her two sons. Bass agreed, and when the two outlaws came home Bass agreed to join them. However, when everyone was asleep Bass handcuffed the two brothers together. When they woke up the next morning they were angry, but Bass still managed to haul them back to Fort Smith, despite being pursued by the men's irate mother.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass found himself abruptly out of a job. Marshal duties were taken over by the new state government, who did not allow African Americans to serve. Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department, and spent two years as a beat cop. Legend says that there was never a single crime on his beat.

In 1909 Bass was diagnosed with Bright's Disease. He died a few months later in  January of 1910. 

Bass was one of the most effective lawmen of the time. He caught over 3,000 criminals, and it is notable that of that number, he only ever had to shoot fourteen of them. He is widely considered to be the inspiration behind the popular cartoon character, the Lone Ranger, though this has never been confirmed. Either way, Bass remains an Old West legend.

¹Pronounced with a short 'a', like the fish, not with a long 'a' like the musical instrument.


Friday, June 2, 2017

Damn, Girl-Sojourner Truth

Image result for sojourner truthSojourner Truth is one of the legendary activists that America all too often forgets about. Active during the nineteenth century, Truth was a respected abolitionist and feminist, whose public speaking skills were absolutely legendary. She was a 'radical' of the time, and lobbied for not only abolitionism and women's rights, but prison reform and an end to capital punishment. Not only that, Sojourner had guts. She escaped her cruel master, and successfully sued a southern family to get her son back from slavery. She repeatedly protested segregation of Washington DC streetcars by sitting in a section reserved for whites, despite having been thrown from the streetcar. This woman worked tirelessly her whole life to see positive changes in the world.

Sojourner was born Isabelle Baumfree to a Dutch speaking couple who belonged to a Dutch speaking white man in New York state. Her date of birth was not recorded because racism, but it's guessed that she was born in the late 1790s. She was bought and sold a grand total of four times, and had five children before leaving* her master with the help of a local abolitionist family. This same family later helped her with the law suit that would return custody of Sojourner's son, Peter, to her.

After her escape Sojourner moved to New York City where she joined a cult and worked as a domestic servant. This inspired her to go west and become an itinerant preacher, and at age 52 she changed her name to 'Sojourner Truth'. As a preacher, Truth was introduced to Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, who convinced her to speak out about abolitionism. She soon began championing women's rights as well.

Image result for sojourner truthSojourner spoke at hundreds of gatherings. She was a charismatic and persuasive speaker. She's best know for her moving 'Ain't I a Woman' speech given at a women's conference in Akron, Ohio. This speech is the first example of inter-sectional feminism--showing how women were not equal to men, and how black women were not equal to white women.

To appropriate a lyric from Lin Manuel-Miranda, Sojourner was non stop. She started her activism career at 52, and in the time between that and her death forty years later she not only lobbied for an end to slavery, but she:

  • Recruited young African-American men for the Union army
  • Provided supplies for said army
  • Consulted with the Freedmens' Bureau in Washington DC 
  • Lobbied for an African-American colony in the west so that freed slaves could become self-sufficient  
  • Protested segregation
  • Assisted in helping freed slaves get settled on lands in Kansas
  • Continued to fight for women's suffrage 
She eventually settled in Battle Creek Michigan with her daughter, and continued to fight for equality until she died of old age. 

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Bust of Truth located in the US Capitol. She
was the first African American woman to be
honored in this way.
Sojourner Truth was the inter-sectional feminist we all wish we were. She fought bitterly with Frederick Douglass to make suffrage for black women, as well as black men, a priority. She pointed out the discrepancies in how white women versus how black women were treated. Sojourner Truth didn't pull punches, and that's one of the reasons she was such an influential woman. She said what she meant, no matter if white or male feelings would be hurt. She understood that racism and misogyny were closely related, and she did her utmost to correct both of those problems.

*You'll notice I said 'leaving', not 'escaping'. Sojourner left in 1827, when, by New York law, she should have been emancipated. Her then master, John Dumont, claimed that she still owed him work. Sojourner wasn't having that, and she walked off one morning with her infant child Sophia.

Sources Biography
National Women's History Museum
National Parks Service Biography
Sojourner Truth Memorial
Architecture of the Capitol