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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 03:21 pm

Black marshals get their due

Springfield author tours nation to share history

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Robert Moore
Bass Reeves once single-handedly arrested 19 horse thieves. A deputy U.S. Marshal from 1875 to 1907, Reeves made more than 3,000 arrests and even once arrested his own son who was wanted for murder. But despite his reputation as a fearless and skilled officer, Reeves wasn’t mentioned in the U.S. Marshals Service’s official history book.

The reason is that Reeves was an African American, says Springfield resident and historian Robert Moore, himself a former U.S. Marshal. Moore, 68, has dedicated his retirement years to the history of African Americans in the U.S. Marshals Service, touring the nation with an exhibit he created on African American marshals and promoting his book, The Presidents Men: Black United States Marshals in America.

U.S. Marshals are the law enforcement arm of the federal court system. They protect judges, apprehend fugitives, transport prisoners, seize property confiscated by courts, and more.

“The heartburn I get is that the U.S. Justice Department approved the original history book (about the marshals) which left out all of the African Americans,” Moore says. “I don’t quite understand how they could justify that. We were just simply ignored; we weren’t viewed as important.”

Moore grew up in Mississippi and served in the U.S. Army before moving to Rockford, where he joined the Illinois State Police as a trooper. He came to Springfield to take on the role of Equal Employment Opportunity director for the state police. He has worked as deputy police chief of Savannah, Ga., as chief of internal affairs for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, as a private consultant on minority hiring, and as chief of police in Jackson, Miss. He also earned two degrees – a bachelor’s in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration – from Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois at Springfield. Moore served as a U.S. Marshal from 1994 to 2002 on appointment by President Bill Clinton.

It was during his time as a marshal that Moore began to realize his fellow African-American marshals had been overlooked in both official and unofficial histories of the U.S. Marshals. Curiously absent were mentions of figures like Bass Reeves, though his white counterparts at the time were highlighted. The first and most famous African American marshal, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, had been referenced in the Marshals Service’s official history book only in passing – as acknowledgment of his appointment by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Moore began researching the history of African-American marshals and put together an exhibit containing photographs, biographies and artifacts, which were displayed at the Paul Findley Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Springfield. Moore eventually created a website for the exhibit, followed by a book that was first released in January 2011. Moore now tours the country showing his exhibit and speaking about the history of the nation’s 68 African-American marshals.

Moore said African-American marshals served the subpoena for tape recordings on former President Richard Nixon, assisted in the racial integration of the University of Mississippi, put Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to death and participated in many other historical events.

“The value of history is validating peoples’ existence,” Moore says. “It validates their contributions to history, their place in history. It also shows people that you accomplished things.”

Writing a book was about more than just preserving history, Moore said. It also brought to light significant historical trends concerning race. One example, Moore said, is that Democratic presidents have appointed far more African-American marshals than Republican presidents. And although U.S. senators are responsible for nominating marshals, the lack of African-Americans in the Senate means U.S. representatives recommend African-Americans more frequently on the rare occasion that there is no sitting senator in their district.

“The book brings to light a lot of stuff,” Moore says. “I wanted my children, my grandchildren and the public to know they don’t have to complain about being left out of history. They have the ability to write their own history.”

For more information, visit Moore’s website at blackmarshalpublishing.com.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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