WASHINGTON — William Henderson Foote was a black federal law enforcement official in America’s Deep South at a time of heightened racial tensions, tasked with collecting liquor tax revenue from wholesalers and retailers in post-Reconstruction Mississippi. He joined the military at the start of the Civil War and later was politically active, championing civil rights and ascending to the state legislature.
But his name was largely lost to history after his 1883 murder in Mississippi by a white mob irate that he had protected a black man who was targeted for a beating.
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Nearly 130 years later, federal authorities on Monday honored Foote by adding his name to a memorial wall at the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF says Foote, a deputy collector at one of the bureau’s predecessor agencies, was the first black federal law enforcement official to die in the line of duty after Reconstruction.
“He lost his life as all of these agents did, protecting our community and enforcing the rule of law,” acting ATF director B. Todd Jones said, referring to the fallen agents honored on the wall.
Foote’s story was brought to the ATF’s attention by the bureau’s historian, Barbara Osteika, who came upon newspaper articles about his death while doing research. She drew from news coverage, academic articles, government records and family stories passed down through generations to piece together the biography and the circumstances of his death
The son of a barber and a homemaker, Foote was born into a free black family in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1843. He served in the Civil War, and is thought to have attended Oberlin College in Ohio. After the war, he became a community leader, once riding on horseback to rally voters who were being blocked from entering a polling place. He acted as town marshal and served in the state legislature.
Foote took a position in Yazoo City as a deputy collector for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which was responsible for enforcing the nation’s liquor tax laws and seizing illicit distilleries. It was a busy and intense job, at a time when liquor was flowing freely. Steamboats traveling the Yazoo River would deliver liquor to merchants, barrels of whiskey were shipped from town to town and Yazoo City — home to fewer than 2,500 residents — was served by some 40 liquor stores and saloons in the 1870s, according to Osteika’s biography.
Race relations were raw and blacks remained targets of hangings, beatings and other violence.
On Christmas Eve 1883, Foote left his family at a church service after learning that a white merchant, John T. Posey, had come into town with plans to whip a black man, John James, in revenge for a slight. Foote intervened between James and the whipping party. Three white men, including Posey, were killed in the gunfight that followed.
“Courageous men are men who understand the danger and still choose to act,” said Dr. Sharon Malone, the wife of Attorney General Eric Holder and a sixth-generation Alabaman who detailed Foote’s biography at Monday’s ceremony. “There’s no doubt that William Henderson Foote understood exactly what awaited him that day and yet chose to stand up and do the right thing.”
Foote and 10 others were arrested. But on Dec. 29, a mob of more than 200 people overwhelmed the Yazoo City jail, where Foote was awaiting trial. Foote was shot so many times as to be unrecognizable and three other black prisoners were also killed.
Foote has also been honored at the National Police Officers Memorial in Washington as part of National Police Week. Many of his descendants attended Monday’s ATF ceremony, posing for photographs and placing flowers against the memorial wall.
His great-niece, Bettye Gardner, a history professor, said stories about Foote’s life and death had been passed down by her mother. She said she was overwhelmed that Foote was “getting the level of recognition, the level of honor that he should — given the life that he led.”