November 12, 2016

An American lawman

Former slave and U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves

History is ingrained in our consciousness at early ages in elementary school. Some are more deeply impressed than others.
So, when I come across history that I was not taught in younger years, when I hear of men or women who today are famous, and I recognize those names from when I was a boy, it’s easy to place those names in a corner of the brain that says, “yep, know who that is.”
The Old West is a fascinating place to visit historically, but as you read and find out things, they tend to lose their luster. People have embellished the exploits of famous gunfighters and lawmen from our time after the Civil War to 1900, to the point of immortality.
Unfortunately, most of those famous names were very flawed, and had their names made and embellished by hucksters selling dime novels to the public.
We’ve all heard the names like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, Clay Allison, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin and on and on.
But, be honest with yourself.
I don’t remember the name Bass Reeves from my history books, do you?
I thought, maybe I was sick the day we talked about him in social studies. Or, we never saw his name or story at all.
Oh, maybe in today’s history books, but certainly not in my day.
So, when I heard the name on a History Channel special, and that Reeves was a true American lawman and hero, it kind of slapped me in the face.
OK, why hadn’t I heard of his exploits?
Well, if truth be told, how many dime novels from our nation’s Old West era were going to be sold to white people back East about a former slave, a black man who truly was a hero, without all the dime novel embellishments?
Zero, nada, zilch.
Reeves was born in 1838 to slave parents in Crawford County, Ark., owned by farmer and politician William Reeves.
Slave owner Reeves liked the tall young man with good manners and a sense of humor, and William’s son George took Bass along with him when the Civil War broke out, siding with the Confederacy.
The two parted company after George beat Bass up in a card game dispute, and Bass — the slave — fled to the Oklahoma and Indian Territory. He took refuge with Seminole and Creek Indians, and learned firearms and shooting skills, being very quick and accurate with a pistol.
Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and no longer a fugitive slave, he bought and settled on land near Van Buren, Ark., married a Texas woman and eventually had 10 children.
When famous Federal Judge Isaac Parker was appointed to his position at Fort Smith, in a district that covered the vast and lawless area of present-day Oklahoma, Bass Reeves was hired because of his ability to speak several Indian dialects and knowledge of Indian Territory — and became a U.S. deputy marshal.
Tasked with cleaning up Indian Territory of hundreds of lawless men and desperadoes, Reeves worked along with other noted white lawmen like Heck Thomas, Bill Tilghman and Bud Ledbetter. Reeves would cover a circuitous route from Fort Smith that included stops at Fort Reno, Fort Sill and Anadarko — a round trip of more than 800 miles.
Being a former slave, Bass Reeves could neither read nor write, but made an imposing figure at 6 foot, 2 inches tall astride a white horse. He quickly earned a reputation for bringing back his man, either dead or alive.
He was said to have been extremely adept at disguises and aliases, appearing over his law enforcement career as a cowboy, a farmer, a gunslinger or outlaw himself.
He carried two Colt pistols butt first for a fast cross draw, and was ambidextrous.
He would be gone for months at a time, bringing back scores of outlaws over his years as a U.S. marshal.
One of the high points of his career was arresting notorious outlaw Bob Dozier, a cattle rustler and horse thief, bank and stage coach robber, also noted for murdering people.
Many lawmen over the years had unsuccessfully tried to arrest Dozier.
After several months on his trail, Bass Reeves tracked Dozier to the Cherokee Hills, and after refusing to surrender, Reeves killed Dozier in a gunfight in 1878.
His toughest duty as a lawmen came when one of his own sons was charged with the murder of his wife. Reeves accepted the challenge, tracked his son down and brought him back to serve time in Leavenworth Prison.
Famous among his peers as the consummate lawman — yet not so famous to average Americans — Bass Reeves died in 1910, and sadly was buried in an unknown, unmarked grave near Muskogee.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.

November 5, 2016

Our strength as immigrants

Immigrant laborers in New York City came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia and from across Europe

Since immigration and an influx of illegals from other countries has been in the news for many years now, has the American public suddenly been overcome with selective amnesia?
I sometimes wonder.
This nation is so tied to immigrants in its history, it truly is the most diverse country on Earth for a reason.
Unless all your ancestors can be tied to Native Americans, you are either an immigrant, are descended from immigrants or are married to an immigrant — and that takes in about 99 percent of the American population.
I have Cherokee and Pottawatomie blood from way back, as I’m certain many millions of other Americans can — with a little genealogical sleuthing — trace someone, somewhere that was a Native American relative. My Native American blood comes from North Carolina, and from Michigan and Canada.
Yet, even Native Americans came to the North American Continent from somewhere else, way, way, way back in pre-history — before we began chronicling in written form.
The United States has had wave upon wave of immigrants coming to these shores over the centuries. Some 20,000 immigrants came to America in the 1600s, when the Puritans arrived. Remember the Mayflower in history classes? North America was visited by Spain and Christopher Columbus, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria those many years ago. And it’s almost certain the Vikings came here, maybe even some other cultures that we are yet to discover.
All foreigners.
It seems America has been tied to the rest of the world for a very long time. Without the rest of the world, we wouldn’t be us.
There’s almost a feeling today that we all just suddenly appeared here as Americans. Nope, we all came from somewhere else — even Native Americans.
Today, many of our individual states have large numbers of people descended from major immigrant groups. In Boston, the Irish are a large segment of that population, as well as in New York City, which also has large populations of people of Jewish and Italian descent. There are many Midwestern states with large numbers of people of German descent, particularly Pennsylvania. There are droves of people of Cuban descent in southern Florida; there are many millions of people of Hispanic descent throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. You can find large sections of Asians throughout the United States, and some cities today with large populations of people from Africa. Europeans of all stripes are spread throughout the United States.
Find someone who isn’t descended from an immigrant, and you’ve found a historical rarity.
And just think, if just one of your immigrant descendants hadn’t come here, you would not be here — you wouldn’t even exist as a person. Kind of awe-inspiring and scary at the same time, if you stop and think about it. If my great-great-great-great-grandparents hadn’t come here from Northern Ireland in the 1790s, I would never have been born.
There have been great migrations of people throughout American history.
In 1790, just after the U.S. Constitution was written and we became an independent nation, there were 2.1 million people on these shores from England and 757,000 from Africa — mostly slaves. There were 300,000 Scots-Irish, 270,000 Germans, 150,000 from Scotland and another 100,000 from the Netherlands. 
Fully 20 U.S. presidents — both past and present — can trace Irish ancestry in their genealogical trees, starting with Andrew Jackson back in the early 1800s, along with Abraham Lincoln all the way up to both Presidents Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Some 38 of our presidents are descended from at least one person of descent from the British Isles, and a number have German in their backgrounds as well — including George Washington.
America has had many waves of immigrants come here — from Ireland in the1850s following the Great Potato Famine, or fleeing religious, ethnic or political persecution, as we saw during and after both world wars. In 1850, 2.2 million people immigrated to the United States before the Civil War, fully 10 percent of the population — a staggering number historically. By 1890, immigrants were flooding this nation from all over Europe.
You can go back throughout American history, and there is not a time, a single year, when immigrants were not coming to these shores. All were looking for something better for themselves and their children. And, all faced significant discrimination after coming here. If you could manage to get on a boat and get here, and then find a place to live, then you became an American.
We are this planet’s strongest nation because of our diversity, because of our variety of talents. If everyone who came here was a plumber or a lawyer or a waiter, that wouldn’t work, now would it? Each individual’s talents add to the whole.
We are the world’s melting pot and its leader because of immigrants.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. 

October 29, 2016

Women and suffrage

Women in the early 1900s protest for the right to vote
We get these little pre-conceived notions when we are younger — of history, of the way of the world, even of politics.
I don’t know why it suddenly popped into my head this week — probably because we are nearing the finish line in the 2016 presidential race — but I remember in grade school one of my teacher’s talking about the women’s suffrage movement in American history.
Don’t ask me why, but I thought she was referring to suffer-age, that women were suffering because they weren’t able to vote.
OK, the term suffrage is its own term. It comes from the Latin suffragium, meaning vote, political support and the right to vote.
There, now I’ve laid to rest another point of historical trivia muddled in my mind since I was in fourth grade.
It’s taking my brain a long while to un-muddle — a phrase I’ve recently coined for the American electorate.
Anyway, since women’s issues seem more at the forefront of this election than any in recent memory, it’s appropriate to look back on the suffrage movement.
Women, and many men who didn’t own property, or were slaves, Native Americans or dirt-poor immigrants and farmers, couldn’t vote at this nation’s founding.
Despite all you read in the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence or even the Farmer’s Almanac, voting was a privilege basically for white men with property.
Not especially a shining ornament on the tree of democracy.
This, from — “On Election Day in 1920, millions of American women exercised their right to vote for the first time. It took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right, and the campaign was not easy: Disagreements over strategy threatened to cripple the movement more than once. But on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, enfranchising all American women and declaring for the first time that they, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”
Ouch. While neither you nor I lived during this portion of American history, it may seem foreign to us that it took so long for our nation to allow women the right to vote.
Sounds like this could only happen in Albania or in Tsarist Russia or the Antarctic, doesn’t it? Nope, women couldn’t vote in any U.S. national election before summer of 1920.
Not sure what people were thinking back in the 1780s, but since our Founding Fathers all were men, I guess there is your answer.
As much as we revere them today, they weren’t above certain failings when it came to democracy — just look at the issue allowing slavery.
The campaign for women’s suffrage began in earnest decades before the American Civil War. By the 1830s, most states finally had extended the voting franchise to all white men, and a handful of black freedmen, regardless if they owned property.
I guess it looked pretty bad for a young democracy to not let some men vote, yet was more than happy to allow them to fight and die for their state or country in the military.
Back in the 1820s, reform groups proliferated across the nation, and included temperance clubs against alcohol, religious movements and moral-reform societies, anti-slavery abolitionists and all had a common thread — the movements were chock-full of American women.
For women, they began to chafe under the cloud of how men perceived them, under which historians today call the “cult of true womanhood” — the idea the only true woman was a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned exclusively with home and family.
In a sense, and practically at the time, women were not really considered citizens.
OK, I never said American democracy was perfect, or even that it was fair — it was what it was in the 1700s and 1800s, and is what it is today. Changing societal norms that sprang from thousands of years of history obviously does not happen overnight.
Starting in the 1900s, a few states in the West began to extend the right to vote for women — it was individual states that were against the right of allowing women to vote, and not the federal government.
Resistance came from the South and East. When women finally came together and their groups mobilized state by state, after decades of protests and pressure, America came around to allowing women the right of all citizens to vote.
Today, women make up the largest voting bloc of any demographic you want to look at in any national election.
They are poised to decide whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is the next president.
And, in fact, if Mrs. Clinton is elected — just like the 19th Amendment passing 96 years ago this past August — history will be made in the fact that the first woman will become president of the United States of America.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.

October 15, 2016

First for a reason

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ~ Voltaire
While I still think this may be one of the greatest quotes in the history of democracy, I always assumed it was uttered by a famous personage from the Revolutionary War — from one of our Founding Fathers.
Ah, but we have a large sign in the newsroom that says to “never assume” … that it has the potential to make an “ass (of) u (and) me.”
Yet, in researching the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and other subsequent amendments, it became as clear as muddy water that British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall passed along this quote gleaned from French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher François-Marie Arouet — commonly known as Voltaire.
If it was Voltaire, or whomever first uttered the words is not the point — it’s the words themselves.
They go right to the heart of American democracy and the First Amendment.
Now, I firmly doubt one in 1,000 Americans can tell you exactly how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution — it may be one in 10,000, who knows.
Or that 33 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by Congress, and that six were never ratified over the course of our nation’s history. The 18th — Prohibition — was repealed by the 21st.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution collectively are called the Bill of Rights — sacred to our democracy, to our government and our way of life.
We have the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms; and we have the Sixth Amendment, the right to a fair trial.
We are in the midst of one of our amendments — the 12th — since it deals with presidential elections; the 13th abolished slavery; the 16th deals with income taxes; the 19th granted the vote to women.
The 27th and last dealt with congressional pay — and I think Congress slipped that one past us.
But the First Amendment is first for a reason. It is by far the most important, and without it, none of the other 26 amendments have nearly the weight or substance.
The First Amendment is that important.
And for all its importance, it is short and sweet and to the point.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This nation was founded on these bedrock principles, and to breach them in any way — to me — goes against everything the Founding Fathers, the Continental Army and Americans of the 13 Colonies fought, bled, suffered and died for those many years ago.
There are scores of famous quotes throughout American history that affirm and re-affirm the First Amendment.
My favorite is from President Harry Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
Or this quote, from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Again, great words, but also a great warning.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”  The words from President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address — perhaps the most famous speech in American history — ring out today amidst the super-heated rhetoric over the office of the presidency and the Nov. 8 election, as they did for Lincoln in 1860.
Free speech debate, protected by the First Amendment, is the only way Americans can look at this election, or any of our daily endeavors.
Yet, free speech and free thought come with caveats, that the speech not be so intemperate, or that our position or thoughts are such that we only consider one side of the debate without truly taking the time to listen to an opposing view.
I’ve quoted this before, and I will quote it to my dying breath, from the late Professor Tibbie Shades, who hailed from my neck of the woods — “Always listen to what the other guy has to say, because he may just be right.”
His words are as astute and genuine and thought-provoking as any president, supreme court justice or philosopher.
Americans who don’t head them, do so at their peril — and the peril of American democracy. 

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.