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BLACK GUN, SILVER STAR, by Art T. Burton
5 Stars Highly Recommended
Brief though the period of the Wild West was, the exploits of its villains and lawmen have fascinated people around the world, and been disproportionately represented in pop culture. But the multicultural nature of the Wild West has rarely been evidenced in the plethora of films, books and television shows. Which probably explains why the arrival of Sheriff Black Bart in Mel Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles" (1974) elicited such a stunned response from the townspeople, and a riot of laughter from the audience. Imagine: a black lawman in the Old West!
Imagine no more. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave, served for nearly 30 years in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, the most deadly location for U.S. marshals. And according to glowing accounts of his bravery, skill and steadfast devotion to duty (found in white newspapers of the time, mind you) nobody was laughing when he rode into to town, especially not the bad guys. As this book amply illustrates, Reeves is remarkable not merely for being a black marshal (there were others) but for being one of the greatest U.S. Marshals, period.
But Reeves’ story - with the exception of references published here and there - has been largely ignored by western historians. Though widely known and respected during his lifetime, he was illiterate and left behind no diaries or letters, so what little has come down has been in the form of oral history and legends. Art T. Burton has spent the better part of 20 years reclaiming the heritage of African Americans in the American West, and has scoured through a wide range of primary sources - including Reeves’ federal criminal court cases available in the National Archives, and account books at Fort Smith Historic Site - to separate legend from fact and painstakingly piece together the story of this American hero.
The book is not a biography in the traditional sense, but as the subtitle states, a reader. It reproduces many of the court documents and contemporary newspaper articles with just enough narrative to put them into context. Not being a Wild West buff myself, I felt the author did an excellent job providing background to help me make sense of it all.
As the author recounts, one of the first responses he received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma when inquiring about Reeves was "I am sorry, we didn’t keep black people’s history." This book is the perfect example of the wealth of information which can be gleaned by a creative, dedicated historian who looks beyond the usual sources in order to root out the hidden history of multicultural America. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Western history and culture, law enforcement, American or African American Studies.
And I hope this book inspires someone to finally bring the life and times of Bass Reeves to the big screen.
— Gerri Gribi