The Lone Ranger is commonly depicted in popular culture as a dapper, handsome Texan cowboy, with a white horse and a sidekick named Tonto. He fights bad guys, throws them in jail, and rides off into the sunset with Tonto. A film released on July 3, 2013 starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer brought the old western adventure to the big screen. Many who have been fans of the Lone Ranger on the radio and TV probably enjoyed the movie. However, in recent publications, Bass Reeves, the Lone Ranger’s original identity has been mistaken or lost and accomplishments somewhat taken out of context.
Bass Reeves, a black slave born around July of 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, was owned by William Reeves. When Reeves was eight, he was taken with his owner to Texas. Bass wasn’t taught to read, but his owner shaped him into a skilled gunman. How Reeves got his freedom is speculation. Some say he escaped after the Civil War and made his way into Indian Territory, which embodies Arkansas and Oklahoma. Other say he got into a fight after a card game with his owner’s son, and fearing retaliation, he fled into Indian Territory. The common denominator between them two is that Reeves lived in Arkansas among the Five Civilized Tribes, became fluent in their languages, married and bore children, and made a living by being a farmhand.
Reeves became a deputy when Judge Isaac C. Parker was transferred to Arkansas from Missouri to help manage the federal courts. There was a lot of crime in Indian Territory and Parker needed deputies to patrol the area. Reeves was not just an intermediate man who knew the people, but Judge Parker appointed Reeves as a deputy, because he respected him and felt he could do his job as well as any white man.
Over the course of Reeves’ 32 year career, he captured around some 3,000 criminals and killed 14 of them. His disguises ranged from cowboys to women in order to catch outlaws. Reeves did have an Indian sidekick to help him trap criminals and rode on a white (or gray) horse. He retired in 1907 and died in 1910.
Here is where Reeves, the Lone Ranger, underwent a deliberate race change, and the reality of his identity was mistaken or lost. Many of the criminals he had captured were sent to Detroit, Michigan. Prisoners he had jailed talked about him, so his legacy continued to spread word of mouth. And, along the way, radio broadcasters in the 1930s used whites to depict the Lone Ranger. Not to mention, for its time, it was not realistic to show a black man who was strong and heroic. Blacks were still largely thought of as lazy, inferior, uncultured, and unintelligent; whites were the opposite. Showing blacks in a favorable light would have been a threat to the foundation of white supremacy built in America.
As the decades grew, TV adaptations began following the same script—whitening his skin, but accepting his efforts. It’s not a coincidence that certain facets of Reeves’ life were kept intact—being a deputy, having captured criminals, had a companion, and riding a white horse. However, considering the mistaken identity of the African American Reeves, instead of Armie Hammer being the Lone Ranger, an actor like Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington would have provided a more accurate portrayal of this Western legend.
Commentary By Arika Elizenberry
New York Daily News