If there was ever a person in Arkansas history who should be — and is — considered “larger than life,” it’s Bass Reeves. One of the most interesting people who ever lived in The Natural State, Reeves was a U.S. Deputy Marshal under Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker, himself a legendary figure in the annals of frontier Arkansas. Ever since I watched the video about him at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, I have been fascinated by this man.
Reeves was born a slave in Crawford County but moved to Texas with the family that owned him. He escaped during the Civil War and lived in Indian Territory among the Creek and Seminole. This life gave him an intimate knowledge of the Indian language, which is what led him to be commissioned as a law enforcement officer. One of — if not the — first African American peace officers west of the Mississippi, Reeves quickly gained a reputation “always getting his quarry” resulting in him being one of the most feared lawman by outlaws. His exploits were such that the notorious Belle Starr turned herself in at Fort Smith once she found out Reeves had a warrant for her arrest.
An exhibit, including video, at the Fort Smith National Historic Site depicts his career while in Fort Smith. An impressive statue of Reeves on his horse, accompanied by his faithful dog, stands in his honor in Pendergraft Park. Also celebrating his legacy is Baridi Nkokheli’s living history portrayal of Reeves, which he began 2005. He makes frequent public appearances in full period clothing and deputy gear, including a Colt .45 holstered on his hip and a 1873 Winchester rife in his hand. Nkokheli’s interpretation promotes awareness of Bass Reeves and his place in history.
In his other life, Baridi is director of Fort Smith’s Department of Sanitation. In that capacity, he is in charge of the largest permitted waste disposal operation in Arkansas, which serves more than four hundred thousand people in two states.
You can learn how Baridi’s living history interpretation adds to the fascinating Wild West heritage of Fort Smith during his appearance in two panel discussions at the 39th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism, March 3-5 in Hot Springs.