Bass Reeves impersonator Baridi Nkokheli has died

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 4,909 views 

Baridi Nkokheli (left) in his Bass Reeves character, met with actor Morgan Freeman in Little Rock in April 2010.

T. Baridi Nkokheli, the former Fort Smith Sanitation Director whose impersonation of legendary lawman Bass Reeves helped raise awareness of the historic figure and money for a Reeves statue now in downtown Fort Smith, has died.

Talk Business & Politics confirmed through Fort Smith Mayor George McGill that Nkokheli had passed away. McGill said he was notified Saturday (Jan. 22) of his passing. (Talk Business & Politics will update this story when an obit is published.)

Nkokheli, hired as sanitation director in 2005 and the first African American to lead a city department, depicted Marshal Reeves since 2007 on behalf of the city of Fort Smith and worked with the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative to raise funds for the Reeves statue.

According to various publications, Reeves was a U.S. Deputy Marshal 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. Reeves was an African-American and illiterate, but captured 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. Burton wrote that Reeves was an expert tracker and detective, and was able to memorize the warrants for every lawbreaker he was to arrest and bring to trial. Reeves was the first African-American inducted into the Great Westerners Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1992.

The 25-foot tall monument unveiled in downtown Fort Smith in May 2012 was created by sculptor Harold T. Holden. The larger-than-life statue of Reeves also includes his horse, Blaze, and his trusty dog, named simply “Dog.”

“The Bass Reeves story wouldn’t be what it is without Baridi. He brought the character of Bass Reeves to life and was instrumental in educating the people and the children of Fort Smith, and of this state, about the history of this great lawman,” Mayor McGill told Talk Business & Politics.

Jim Spears, a former municipal judge and a leader with the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative, also praised Nkokheli for his work in bringing the statue to reality.

“Baridi Nkokheli came to Fort Smith at the time we were beginning to raise the awareness of Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. We persuaded him to personify the legend and he agreed. He became Bass and as a result the monument stands in Pendergraft Park. He gave of his time and became a symbol of a real frontier hero. We owe him a debt for the contribution he made to the heritage of our town,” Spears noted.

A July 2021 article in Texas Monthly highlighted Reeves’ role in early American justice, but also noted Nkokheli’s role in keeping Reeves’ legacy alive.

“Wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, a long tan duster, dark pinstriped breeches tucked into leather riding boots, and a silver star pinned to his vest, Nkokheli resurrected Bass Reeves,” the article noted. “Over the next seven years, he appeared in character at elementary schools, college classes, conferences, and business luncheons, and in front of buses full of tourists. He even met with Morgan Freeman at the Little Rock airport in April 2010, all while preaching the ‘gospel of Bass,’ mostly from ‘the canon that was the book by Art Burton.’”

Talk Business & Politics was with Nkokheli when he met briefly with Freeman. Nkokheli, dressed as Bass Reeves, told Freeman about 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 blacks to be commissioned a U.S. Marshal and the role of blacks in American history.

Under a cloud of controversy amid a change in city leadership, Nkokheli was terminated by then-Acting City Administrator Jeff Dingman for insubordination in December 2015. He was hired in 2017 as a landfill supervisor at the Baltimore Public Works Department, and in August 2019 he become managing CEO of the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corp. in New Jersey. He resigned from that job in February 2020.