Black History Month: And then there were the good guys

Attorney Douglas Lewis, director of the University of Michigan's Student Legal Services, has a longtime interest in African American history, particularly as it pertains to the settling of the West. This is the last in a series of columns written for The Legal News during Black History Month.

In 1969, a true western classic was introduced. The movie was "True Grit" starring John Wayne as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. In fact, Wayne won an Oscar for his performance.

His character was a United States marshall who worked for what I think may be the most famous of the wild west jurists, Judge Issac Parker. While Rooster may be a creation of fiction, Parker was not. In fact, I am sure he was very real to the 160 men (and a couple of women) whom he sentenced to death. Even more so to the 79 he actually hanged. His jurisdiction covered much of what is now Oklahoma. In 1875, it was a wild and dangerous place known as the Indian Territory. Full of lawless men and women, it was a good place to hide out if you were on the run.

The only court with jurisdiction over the Indian Territory in 1875 was the U. S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith was situated on the border of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory. This became the court of Judge Parker, better known as the Hanging Judge.

One of his best marshalls was a former slave named Bass Reeves. Bass was famous for his success rate as well as his methods. It was not unusual for him to dress in disguise so he could get close to a suspect and then take him into custody without any trouble. That is not to say that he couldn't handle a six shooter, but keeping things peaceful was his preferred method. He was known to get a hand full of warrants from the court and then head out with his posse to chase down the bad guys, often returning with up to 15 prisoners.

There is one thing you should know about Bass: He couldn't read. I can see the headline now: ''Marshall, with warrants he can't read, arrests wrong person." History says that never happened. Bass created his own shorthand system. Before leaving with the posse, he had someone read all the warrants while he took notes in his shorthand. In all the arrests he made--and there were hundreds--he never took the wrong man into custody. It is also important to note that the "posse" was not what you might envision. It was only he and a cook who drove the prison wagon and cared for those who had been arrested. Bass died in 1910 at the age of 86 in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

As good as Bass was, he pales in comparison to Willie Kennard.

There was a little all-white town called Yankee Hill Colorado. The town had a problem by the name of Barney Gothwaite. Barney had a serious issue with authority figures that led to the murder of two sheriffs and the friend of a third sheriff who could only watch as Barney shot his friend dead. The sheriff resigned immediately. There were no new takers for the job.

The town fathers posted an ad for a replacement. One day a 6-foot-2 African American rode into town. He wore a suit and a dark hat and two six shooters. He went to the mayor's office and asked about the job he had read about in a newspaper. The mayor's first response was, "Excuse me, boy. You can read?" Of course his surprise would have been a common one since it was general practice to discourage blacks from reading. (Sometimes discourage to the point of death.) Mr. Kennard did not show offense. Instead he responded with, "Yes, I can read."

At this point, the mayor decides to tell him that if he arrests Barney, the job would be his. Kennard agreed, and was given directions to the saloon. On his arrival, Kennard found Barney at a table with two of his friends. He then proceeded to do something a black man generally did not do in the 1870's: He took authority over a white man. Kennard told Barney to come with him. Barney's angry response was, ''Go where with you, boy?''

Kennard responded by saying, ''You are going to jail. You are under arrest.''

Barney took great offense to this. He started to draw his six-shooters. The problem was that before Barney could clear leather, Kennard had drawn, cocked and fired, blowing the handles off Barney's guns. Barney's friends drew their weapons to kill Kennard. The problem for them was that Kennard had not been asked to arrest them. He shot them both between the eyes and they dropped dead where they stood.

It is now that the mayor asked the correct question: ''Sir, ah Mr. Kennard, what have you been doing with your life?''

Kennard explained after he fought with a state militia in the Civil War, he joined the 10th Cavalry. He further explained that he was the unit pistol instructor.

You see, things are not always as they seem.

Published: Thu, Feb 23, 2012

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