Politics and Government

Law Enforcement

What black American gained fame as an early law enforcement officer?

When Bass Reeves (?–1910) was sworn in as a federal deputy marshal in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1875, he became the first black federal law enforcement officer on the early Western frontier. For thirty-two years he was a deputy U.S. marshal in Indian Territory and served also with the Muskogee, Oklahoma, police department. Reeves worked as deputy marshal with Judge Isaac C. Parker, who was known as the “hanging judge.” For twenty-one years Reeves and Parker worked in the federal territory that later became Oklahoma. Born into slavery on a Texas cotton plantation, Reeves fled his master, who had allowed him to demonstrate his skill as a marksman but had refused to teach him to read. Reeves was a fugitive in the Oklahoma territory until the Civil War ended. As a free black, he became a farmer until Parker was named federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas (the early name for the Oklahoma territory). When Parker dedicated himself to rounding up the fearless bands of desperados, murderers, and outlaws in his district, he sought equally fearless men to enforce the law. Reeves, a crack shot and one who knew the territory, befriended the local Native Americans and was said to fear “nothing that moves or breathes.” He trailed and ended the life of notorious Bob Dozier and later captured his own son, a fugitive charged with killing his wife. Rather than retire in 1907 when other law enforcement agencies took over the marshal’s duties, Reeves worked for two years with the Muskogee police force. In 1994 the Bass Reeves Foundation was formed in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to perpetuate the legacy of the legendary lawman. A memorial was placed in city hall at Muskogee, Oklahoma, in his honor.


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