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First Black Federal Officer Killed In 1883 Honored

May 15, 2012  | 

An ATF historian has identified William H. Foote as the first African-American federal officer killed on duty.
An ATF historian has identified William H. Foote as the first African-American federal officer killed on duty.

As a federal deputy tax collector, William Henderson Foote was a black law enforcement officer in the racially charged Deep South during the post-Reconstruction era. Foote collected taxes from liquor wholesalers and distributors.

Foote's name had been forgotten until this week, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) honored him as the first black federal officer killed in the line of duty.

Foote, a sworn agent with the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue, now has a place of honor at the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Judiciary Square. His name was among the 362 engraved this year during National Police Week.

During a Monday ceremony at ATF headquarters, agency leaders presented Foote's descendants with the U.S. flag they were denied after he was killed on Dec. 29, 1883.

Acting Director B. Todd Jones presented the flag—with only 38 stars, representing 38 states—to Foote's grandniece, Bettye Gardner, and great granddaughter, Patricia Nolcox.

"ATF is proud to honor the memory of William Henderson Foote whose bravery and sacrifice are emblematic of the commitment that is shared by all ATF personnel who work tirelessly to protect the American people from violent crime," Jones said.

Left to right, Todd Jones, acting ATF director; Bettye Gardner, grandniece; Patricia Nolcox, great granddaughter.
Left to right, Todd Jones, acting ATF director; Bettye Gardner, grandniece; Patricia Nolcox, great granddaughter.

Foote was killed in Yazoo City, Miss., by a lynch mob, after he intervened to stop three white men from beating a black man. Three years earlier, Foote had been appointed as a federal collector in Yazoo City, a river town used to export cotton and import goods, including liquor.

He had served as a constable, beginning in 1869; became town marshal; and served in the Mississippi Legislature. As a lawmaker, he helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1871 that attempted to limit the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

On Dec. 24, 1883, James Posey—the son of Confederate general Carnot Posey—rode into Yazoo City looking for John James, whom he intended to beat or lynch. Posey formed an armed "whipping party" that included himself, his brother Carnot, and friend Jasper Nichols.

Foote was told about the plan and headed into town with his Springfield breech-loading single shot rifle.

During a confrontation, Foote fatally shot the three men and suffered a head wound from a revolver butt. Foote and 10 other African-Americans who backed him were arrested, and a posse chased down and fatally shot John James.

A coroner's jury indicted Foote and three others for murder. As Foote and the others awaited trial, an angry crowd stormed the jail and killed Foote and three other African American prisoners. Foote was 40.

Deputy collectors are believed to be direct forerunners of today's ATF special agents because they also enforced federal tax laws. They collected taxes from licensed wholesale and retail distilleries, seized illicit distilleries and moonshine products and arrested and prosecuted tax violators.

By Paul Clinton

Comments (14)

Displaying 1 - 14 of 14

Wayne L. Chonicki @ 5/15/2012 7:57 PM

Unfortunate that his ethnicity is so prominent among our own. He was undoubtedly a good man, ...a brother officer, his blood as red and precious as ANY of ours. As both a retired Veteran and Peace Officer I never found the need to categorize a brother officer's ethnicity unless he himself chose to make an issue of it. He's got a badge and willing to lay himself upon our thin blue line to save the lives of the innocent. THAT, is ALL I need to know and I've got your back, regardless of ethnicity. We can't make the stupidity of the past disappear... but we can... day by day, keep putting it FURTHER in our collective past. God rest this man and all our bro's & sister's who have given their all and keep safe those who still serve as OUR backups. Amen ~

[email protected] @ 5/15/2012 9:17 PM

Wayne L., Amen.

Morning Eagle @ 5/16/2012 12:21 AM

I had the same thought as Wayne and Bob: What does the color of his skin have to do with it? From the short description of his actions it looks like he was good man trying to do his job and protect others yet was killed by a lawless mob for his efforts. I'll bet his blood was red, just like yours and mine, and it is appropriate that his department honored him and that his name was added to The Wall, even at this late date.

Morning Eagle @ 5/16/2012 12:55 AM

Another thought: Given the turbulence of those times, and the place and prejudices that existed, would it be safe to say that not one member of the mob that killed him or the ones that went after John James and murdered him were ever even arrested or faced any charges? It would be interesting to know even though it wouldn’t change anything now. I would be surprised if it happened.

Bob @ 5/16/2012 4:48 AM

Agree with the comments above. To honor this brave officer BECAUSE of his ethnicity cheapens his self-sacrifice in protecting the innocent. Let his courage speak for itself without the cheap politics.

Ryan L. Beauford @ 5/16/2012 5:22 AM

In today's climate one would think that the tragic loss of any law enforcement officer in such a brutal manner would be cause for outrage.

Yet, two generations that have passed since this senseless act occurred and the comments above appear to focus on the color victim’s skin.

As a law enforcement officer I could share with you occasion(s) when I have had contact with the public or "brother" law enforcement officers and my treatment while out of uniform was less than stellar, until of course they saw my gold badge.

My point is simply that we understand that an officer of the law which happened to be black man was sought out and killed for doing his job; again I say which happened to be black. It is never too late that those who are the disenfranchised be recognized for their selfless service to others while appropriately noting the circumstances (the case file) that brought about the loss of life in the first place. After all, we all are professionals.

May you all be well and stay safe!

scpdblue @ 5/16/2012 5:23 AM

WELL SAID Wayne L., Well said my brother in blue.

Juan 10-13 @ 5/16/2012 5:52 AM

Amen to my brother William H.Foote for your bravery and unfortunate ultimate sacrifice in the course of your profession! I salute you! God Bless all my Brothers and Sisters in Blue always.

Sky @ 5/16/2012 6:41 AM

Unfortunately there are many Law Officers and Veterans of color who never received recognition for their work or for losing their lives in the line of duty. You cannot imagine unless you were that individual how it probably felt to wear the badge and get locked up, chased down and executed because of your color. I proudly wear the badge and am of mixed race blood. It is not until recent years that we all became Brothers and Sisters in blue. How many of you know of US Marshal Bass Reeves or Texas Ranger Captain Earl Pearson who may have been the first Chief Texas Ranger. Look them up. Color makes no difference but I don't see any movies about those two role models.

DB @ 5/16/2012 7:42 AM

Sky, you fall into the same trap as everyone else, white and black. Do not get hung up on the color of skin, just admire and honor the sacrifice of a brave man who did the right thing, and appreciate that someone did go out of their way, political or not, to honor him.

There are a whole lot of people, white, black, indian, hispanic, asian, and others whom have never been recoginized for their sacrifices, but they still did the right thing because it was the right thing to do, not because of their skin color, or because someone was watching, or someone was going to make a movie about them!

If you are waiting for the movie industry to do the right thing, forget it. With very few exceptions, there is not an ounce of right in any of them, nor any accuracy in what they depict. They are just like the media and the politicians who are selling their own agenda and living off the sweat of our brows.

Mark @ 5/16/2012 7:52 AM

As far as I am concerned, we are all brothers and sisters in blue. William Henderson Foote had to have been an incredibly brave man. To have been a black federal tax collector in post reconstruction Mississippi had to take a lot of guts. To take on a mob with a single shot rifle is incredible. We should all aspire to his level of bravery.

Sky I have heard of Reeves and Pearson. I've seen them portrayed in some documentaries but never any movies. Yes, their lives would make great movies.

Chief Dave @ 5/16/2012 12:02 PM

Any recognition here on earth for what we do each day is only short lived anyway. God recognizes bravery, honor, sacrifice, committment and dedication and clearly knows what's in each heart. God knows no color. B - Safe my Friends !

Trigger @ 5/16/2012 12:22 PM

Agent Foote it is a shame that 129 years have passed since your death with no recognition for your actions. However it is a great moment that this deed was corrected and your honor and sacrifice has been brought forward. Rest in peace brother.

Robert Moore @ 5/23/2012 10:32 PM

I am proud to see him, honored by the department--I am doing much to have Black U.S. Marshals honored for their work. New black history book is out on Black U.S. Marshal who were left out of History

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