Read about Bass Reeves, the best in the Old West

December 28, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

It's a mere three days after Christmas (if you celebrate that sort of thing) and the fourth day of Kwanzaa (if you celebrate that sort of thing). It's still not too late to buy a gift. Since I come from what is probably the last generation to value literacy, I recommend giving books.

One of the best books now in stores comes from an unexpected source: one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he of the famous sky-hook and the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, to the sorrow of basketball fans everywhere. But while basketball fans lost, history buffs gained.

Abdul-Jabbar's new book -- co-written with Alan Steinberg -- is "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement." Staci Shands, a representative of William Morrow and Co., told me Abdul-Jabbar wasn't doing media interviews. It seems Kareem is too bashful to praise his own book, so I'll praise it for him.

Much of "Black Profiles" seems to rehash the lives of all-too-familiar black historical figures: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. Others may only be a tad more familiar: inventor Lewis Latimer, explorer Estevanico, insurrectionist Joseph Cinque and Revolutionary War heroes Peter Salem, Salem Poor, James Armistead Lafayette and Crispus Attucks.

But Abdul-Jabbar admitted in an earlier interview -- apparently .. only a select few journalists get the privilege of an interview -- that his favorite historical figure in the book is Bass Reeves.

Never heard of him, you're probably thinking. That's part of the reason Abdul-Jabbar says he wrote his book. Reeves has been overlooked for too long. He was the best lawman the Old West has ever known. Mind you, that's not "the best black lawman." It's the best lawman, period. That includes the renowned Wyatt Earp, who wasn't exactly a slouch as a lawman.

Reeves was one of several black U.S. deputy marshals appointed by Judge Isaac Parker to patrol the Indian Territory in the latter part of the 19th century. The Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma, was a haven for the vilest criminals. Parker's deputy marshal force was multiracial -- black, white and Indian. So was the criminal element in the Indian Territory.

In the 21 years Parker served as judge in Fort Smith, Ark., deputy U.S. marshals rounded up enough criminals for him to try 13,490 cases and win 8,500, according to Abdul-Jabbar's research. Despite Parker's reputation as a hanging judge, only 79 men were executed during his tenure -- 30 white, 26 Indian and 23 black. (Abdul-Jabbar calls Parker "the equal opportunity Hanging Judge.")

Reeves is regarded by some historians as Parker's best deputy marshal. In 32 years as a lawman, Reeves made some 3,000 arrests and killed some 14 men. The number of men killed could have been higher, but Reeves used ingenuity, his knowledge of five Indian languages and clever disguises to capture most of the criminals he pursued. He could well have been America's first undercover cop.

It is worth repeating that Reeves' exploits occurred in the Indian Territory, which was west of Fort Smith. The region was so gruesome that it was said "There is no God west of Fort Smith." Sixty-five of Parker's deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty, and Reeves -- as the most feared one in the Indian Territory -- was shot at plenty of times.

It's a pity we don't get to hear or read much about the lives of people like Bass Reeves. I first read about him in Art Burton's book "Black, Red and Deadly." I don't know if it's a case of great minds thinking alike or of guys with extremely large foreheads thinking alike, but both Abdul-Jabbar and I were impressed by an occurrence that demonstrated Reeves' integrity.

"To me," Abdul-Jabbar writes, "the event in Bass Reeves' life that took the true measure of the man was when he arrested his own son. As far as I know, there was no comparable situation for a lawman in the West."

Abdul-Jabbar skillfully blends the unfamiliar historical figures with those well-known in this book. He wrote it so that black youth "could feel connected to this country [and] its institutions." But there is something here for everyone, as his praise of Judge Parker and Thomas Jefferson ("I always speak highly of Thomas Jefferson") shows. The history of Afro-America and white America are indeed intertwined. Buy this book as a gift for some youngster reluctant to read -- or for yourself.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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