Like a lot of kids in the late 50s and early 60s, Art Burton grew up watching Gunsmoke and Rawhide and reading books about the western frontier.
But as he got older, he realized that what was on TV and in books didn’t reflect reality. Contrary to white-dominated depictions of the west, the frontier was also inhabited by blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans (not to mention Native Americans).
“The American west was very diverse. That has never been captured well in popular media,” says Burton, an assistant director of student development and coordinator of African-American Student Affairs at Loyola University. “The majority of cooks on those cattle drives were either black or Mexican. And the wranglers, the people who handled the horses, were black. Blacks were well-known in the west for their ability to handle horses.”
His background has made him more sensitive than most to the issue. Though Burton was raised in south suburban Phoenix, his mother was born in Oklahoma, where he often visited as a boy, riding horses and attending black rodeos.
For a long time western lore took a backseat in Burton’s life while he concentrated on music. He started playing the conga drum and bongos when he was ten and later attended Governors State University on a talent scholarship, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ethnic and cultural studies. For 12 years he wrote a music column for the Standard, a south suburban newspaper, and in 1973 he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Then in 1986 he traveled to Oklahoma for a family reunion and got into a conversation with his cousin and his cousin’s former college roommate. “We were talking about African-American history and then black history in Oklahoma,” Burton says. “The roommate mentioned that he grew up in a section of Muskogee, Oklahoma, which was named for Bass Reeves [a legendary black lawman in the west]. Some lightbulbs went off in my head. I said to myself that I would write a column about his life.”
After some digging Burton learned that the area was actually named for a white banker. Nevertheless, he had found his calling. For the last 11 years he’s written and given lectures about the history of African-Americans on the western frontier. His first book, Black, Red, and Deadly, published by Texas-based Eakin Press, focuses on black outlaws and lawmen in Indian territory (Oklahoma, before it became a state) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He’s working on a second book, about black soldiers and scouts from the same era, and is considering writing a book about black cowboys.
In Black, Red, and Deadly, Burton writes that Indian territory was filled with outlaws, many of whom were Indian freedmen, blacks once held as slaves by Native American tribes or the descendants of those slaves. “They had a strong gun mentality,” he says. “They were never taught fear. And they did not fear anyone. Often blacks who came out of the south were fearful of white people.”
Cherokee Bill, a robber and murderer who was hanged in 1895, was a typical freedman outlaw. “He was brave and young. He was a flashy dresser. He was not afraid to have shoot-outs with posses.” Because of outlaws like Cherokee Bill, lawmen like Bass Reeves had to be especially courageous, says Burton. Reeves had served as a lawman for 32 years and was known for his ability to handle rifles and track down criminals. Burton says that Reeves was the greatest frontier hero in American history, even greater than Wyatt Earp. “There was not a peace officer in the west you could compare to Bass Reeves,” he says. “The Indian territory where Bass worked had over 120 deputy United States marshals killed in the line of duty. It was said that he was never wounded.”
Burton laments the fact that most black-history scholars concentrate on subjects related to areas east of the Mississippi, such as slavery and black migration to the north. He says there are many topics related to the black experience on the western frontier–military service, entrepreneurship, black towns, black cowboys, black pioneers–that should be explored in depth.
“We don’t have a good handle on our history today,” he says. “A lot of that information should have been out before I wrote it. Very few people have taken the time to study blacks on the frontier, which to me has been a shame.”
Burton will discuss his research on African-Americans in the west Wednesday at 1:30 at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren. Call 312-850-7121. –Michael Marsh
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Art Burton photo by Eugene Zakusilo.