William Henderson Foote, photo ATF
It took a while — a very long while.
The first African-American federal law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty after Reconstruction was in 1883. He was lynched by a bloodthirsty mob of 200 townspeople in Mississippi.
Now, more than a century later, the life and service of William Henderson Foote is being celebrated.
The Washington Post tells the tragic story of William Henderson Foote, a “revenuer,” or deputy tax collector, with the Treasury’s Bureau of Internal Revenue, a predecessor to the ATF.
Though Foote’s agency at the time apparently did nothing to protect him from the lynch mob nor even acknowledge his death, the current ATF did unveil his name on its Memorial Wall during a celebration of his life Monday. As part of National Police Week, his name has also been unveiled on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Foot was also a civil rights leader, state legislator and local constable. A few days before his murder on Christmas eve of 1883, “with total disregard for his own life, but carrying the inherent responsibility of someone who has been known as a man of the law,” he tried to stop a white “whipping party” intent on lynching a black man, reports the Washington Post, quoting ATF historian Barbara Osteika. A chaotic shoot-out occurred, resulting in the deaths of 3 white men, for which Foote and 10 other black men were arrested.
The white community was not satisfied with the justice system and took vengeance into its own hands, breaking into the prison with a battering ram and dragging Foote and the others to a brutal attack.
Last year, the ATF presented Foote’s great-niece Bettye Gardner with a Gold Star Medal to honor Foote, and great-granddaughter Mattie Patricia Nolcox received one this week.
As the memorial efforts of the ATF and National Police Week attest, it is never too late to heal the wounds of history.
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