U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves meets Morgan Freeman

Legendary U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves — portrayed by Baridi Nkokheli of Fort Smith — visited Saturday (April 3) with legendary and Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman about the plans to build a Bass Reeves statue in Fort Smith.

Freeman, who has appeared in movies such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “Unforgiven,” has been on record as saying he would like to do a movie based on the life and times of Bass Reeves.

Nkokheli and wife Tonya, and Craig Pair met with Freeman for a 10-15 minute visit at the Central Flying Service terminal at the Little Rock National Airport. Tonya Nkokheli and Pair are board members of the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative working to raise money for a large Reeves statute to be placed in Pendergraft Park in downtown Fort Smith. The tentative schedule for placing the statue, of which Harold Holden has been commissioned to create, is May 2011.

The only goal of the meeting was to ensure that Freeman is aware that business and civic leaders in the Fort Smith area are serious about recognizing Bass Reeves and firmly connecting his accomplishments to a city that is also home to the planned U.S. Marshals Museum, said Pair, who serves as board chairman of the Initiative.

Reeves was the most feared marshal of his time under U.S. Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker. Reeves was born a slave in Texas in 1838 and died in Muskogee, Okla., on Jan. 12, 1910.

Even though Reeves was an African-American and illiterate, he brought in more outlaws than anyone else, according to the book, “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves,” written by Art Burton. He was able to memorize the warrants for every law breaker he was to arrest and bring to trial. Reeves was an expert tracker and detective, both respected and hated, but mostly feared. Reeves was not the first African-American appointed to serve Judge Isaac C. Parker’s federal court as a deputy U.S. Marshal, but he was the most famous Marshal in his day. He was the first African-American inducted into the Great Westerners Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1992.

Nkokheli, director of the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation, has depicted Marshal Bass Reeves since 2007 on behalf of the city of Fort Smith. He also supports fundraising with the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative for the Reeves statue.

Freeman was in Little Rock to accept an award from the Oxford American magazine. Knowing this, Sebastian County Circuit Court Judge Jim Spears worked through Mississippi attorney Bill Luckett to arrange a meeting between Freeman and Initiative-project members. Luckett serves as one of Freeman’s attorneys, and has also announced he will run as a Democrat in the 2011 Mississippi gubernatorial election.

After several letters and e-mails between Spears, Baridi and Luckett, a brief meeting was arranged.

Nkokheli, dressed as Bass Reeves, wasted no time when Freeman entered the terminal, explaining quickly the statute project, the planned U.S. Marshals Museum and how the Fort Smith area is a dominant part of Reeves’ life history. Nkokheli said his work in sharing Bass Reeves with area civic groups, elementary school students and other interested parties is focused on educating them about one of the first — if not THE first — blacks to be commissioned a U.S. Marshal and the role of blacks in American history.

“The two of us are trying to do the same thing,” Freeman responded.

Freeman not only listened to the presentation, but even quizzed Nkokheli about the name of Reeve’s favorite horse.

“Blaze,” Freeman said, answering his own question.

Nkokheli also told Luckett that U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is aware of the Reeves statue project and that she passed along her thanks to Luckett and Freeman for their providing time to members of the Initiative.

The Fort Smith group presented Freeman with Bass Reeves’ commemorative badges, coins and posters of the statue and Reeves.

“I’ll admit I was nervous,” Baridi said after Freeman and his small entourage departed. “But I think he was interested in what we had to say, even providing the tidbit about (Reeves’) horse. … And the fact that he knew of the history and has been there (Judge Parker’s court) tells me that he has a passion for this.”

Following is a short video (a little more than two minutes) of portions of the meeting with Freeman.