Holleman’s research extends beyond Bass Reeves
story by Marla Cantrell
A statue of Bass Reeves will someday stand in Fort Smith’s Pendergraft Park, but it was Van Buren where the deputy U.S. Marshal’s family’s life played out.
Tonia Holleman, a local expert on the lawman who served under Judge Isaac C. Parker, has researched African-American history since 1962. Reeves’ story is an amazing one, in large part because he was a former slave who never learned to read. He brought in more outlaws between 1875 and 1907 than anyone else by memorizing their warrants, tracking them down, and bringing them back to stand trial in Fort Smith.
“He wasn’t here in Van Buren all that much — he was in the Indian Territory doing his job — but he was around long enough to have eight children,” Holleman said, and then laughed. “The other three were born in Texas: Robert in 1866, Harriet in 1868, and Sally in 1864. His first child born here was in 1870. … When Bass died, his obituary listed his 87-year-old mother, and a sister, still living in Van Buren.
“His house was right over there on the street behind the mission,” she said. “But it’s gone now.”
She even has a clipping of a January 1883 article from the Van Buren Press. “It says Bass Reeves has built a house that is a fine edifice.”
Reeves’ wife held things together while Reeves spent months in the Indian Territory tracking down outlaws for Isaac Parker.
“He had to be completely devoted to law enforcement. He was black and really couldn’t arrest white folks, and yet he did it. His life was about doing what was right, what was good. I think he deserves a statue. And I think if he’d been a white man, he’d already have one,” Holleman said.
It’s Holleman’s direct nature, and unfettered remarks, that has caused some friction over the years.
“It was the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and I got interested in the history of the black people who lived in Crawford County. I started looking into records and they were treated as third-class citizens, sometimes even worse. It wasn’t until the 1870 census that they were listed with names; the first time they were listed as human beings.
“Here I was, this white woman, and I was working to collect the history of another race. It really opened my world up. I started looking at county history books. The black history was glossed over, if it was discussed at all. There were so many black men in the South who fought for freedom in the Civil War. I call them the Silent Soldiers, because they went unnoticed, not honored at all.”
Eventually, her research connected her with writer, and former Van Buren resident, Angela Walton-Raji, who lived through segregation.
“She was visiting me once, and she told me about how her daddy used to have to go to the back door of the Cottage Cafe downtown to get pies,” and I said, ‘Well, let’s just go down there right now and walk through the front door and fix all that.’ And so we did.”
It was Walton-Raji who introduced Holleman to Art Burton, author of “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves.”
“No one knew a darn thing about Bass Reeves before Art started writing about him,” Holleman said. “If Art hadn’t come out with a book, Bass would be just another black man. The first time he came to Fort Smith to talk about Bass, about 10 people showed up. When he came back this year, the Fort Smith Museum of History was just about full. That’s how much he’s done for his legacy.”
Ask Burton who the real star is and he’ll point back to Holleman. She took his book off the shelf and pointed to the paragraph where he thanks her for the research that helped him flesh-out Bass Reeves. Holleman underplays her role.
“I do spend a lot of time on research,” Holleman said. “I did help Art. I’ll go through a computer about every two years.”
She pointed to three black pouches on a table beside her easy chair.
“Those are external hard drives. I burn through scanners. It’s just something I love to do. I’ve been to the National Archives in D.C. several times.”
Her home is filled with notebooks full of the histories of local families.
“If you have a black ancestor from this area, I probably have a file on them.”
She has more than 19,000 records just on Paralee Stewart, Reeves mother, who is buried in Van Buren’s Fairview Cemetery.
“Reeves’ son, Robert is out there, too. He was killed in a railroad accident, and there’s no marker.”
Holleman believes Reeves deserves the statue in Fort Smith. But he’s just the tip of the iceberg. She clicks off the names of several other African-American figures who helped build Crawford County.
“Sam White was with the 57th United States Colored Troops in the Civil War. He founded New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Van Buren, St. Matthew’s and St. Paul’s. Our area is rich with that history, it just isn’t very well known. … When I’m gone, my records will go to Angela, so they’ll be preserved.”
The art teacher, who retired in 1995, sat back and patted the spot beside her, instructing her Yorkie, Mundy, to jump up beside her. On her t-shirt was this sentiment: ‘Family Trees Never Die.’
She looked around her living room, its walls lined with shelves holding her own research.
“It’s been incredibly demanding and rewarding all at once,” she said. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. But I keep going. I’m just trying to do my part to keep Crawford County history going.”