Black Heroes of the Wild West

Black Heroes of the Wild West cover

The three exciting stories James Otis Smith tells in Black Heroes of the Wild West — those of Mary Fields, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons — represent only a small part of the variety of Black experience on the American frontier. All three people were born into slavery but used their skills to set their own paths. These tales are told to refute the popular assumption that cowboys and other Wild West denizens were white.

Mary Fields was a stagecoach driver who held off a pack of wolves single-handedly. She astounded everyone with her strength, determination, and hard work.

The chapter on Bass Reeves shows him going undercover as a traveling worker in order to apprehend wanted criminals. He was really a Deputy U.S. Marshal who, based on this story, took advantage of how people’s stereotypes led to them underestimating him. He also may have inspired the story of the Lone Ranger.

Bob Lemmons captured herds of mustangs by using techniques that were kinder to the wild horses than the usual methods. He understood horses and acted like one of them.

Black Heroes of the Wild West cover

The art sets the mood of the time period as well as showing how active and dynamic these people were. It takes second place to the text, which conveys the details of the scenes. Instead of telling the story, the images capture active or emotional moments.

The inclusion of photographs as endpapers and chapter openings reinforces that there are real people behind these almost unbelievable tales. They provide valuable evidence that grounds the extraordinary events, as well as showing how many more stories were out there.

The introduction by painter Kadir Nelson discusses the importance of representation, particularly when it comes to lesser-known historical facts. This theme continues in the background text material, which explains how diverse cowboys were. Also covered are buffalo soldiers, cattle drives, the myth of the Wild West, and several other related topics.

All this material — which also includes a timeline and a list of additional reading — shows how much bigger Black Heroes of the Wild West could have been. It almost feels like a tease, as we get only a few stories when there are clearly so many more. (The publisher provided a review copy and has posted preview pages. Review originally posted at Good Comics for Kids.)

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