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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

For Immediate Release

July 18, 2011


Contact: ATF Public Affairs Division

(202) 648-8500

ATF/NOBLE Honor First African American Federal Law Enforcement Officer Killed in Line of Duty – 128 Years after Death

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) today posthumously presented its Gold Star Medal to William Henderson Foote, the first African American federal law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty. Foote, who served as a post-Reconstruction Era deputy collector with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), an ATF legacy agency, was honored during the annual conference of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) in Lexington, Ky., 128 years after his death. ATF’s Acting Director Kenneth Melson, NOBLE’s Executive Director Jessie Lee, and members of the Foote family were in attendance. Foote’s grandniece, Dr. Bettye Gardner, a professor of African American history at Coppin State University, Baltimore, accepted the award.

Foote was killed December 29, 1883, in Yazoo City, Miss., while jailed and awaiting trial in conjunction with a racially motivated incident in which he intervened as a federal law enforcement officer.

"ATF is proud to honor the memory of William Henderson Foote whose bravery, courageous service and ultimate sacrifice for his country are especially significant given the circumstances surrounding his death," said Melson.

"NOBLE is honored to participate in the presentation of this ATF posthumous award to William Foote and to recognize his heroism as a federal law enforcement officer during a volatile period in our nation’s history," said Lee.

With the presentation of the ATF Gold Star Medal, ATF pays tribute to Foote’s heroism, dedication to service and ultimate sacrifice. Next year, during National Police Week activities, Foote’s name will be unveiled on the ATF Memorial Wall and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington.

In his position with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, William H. Foote served as a deputy collector (predecessor of contemporary ATF special agents), with the BIR. ATF recently learned of Foote’s service while researching fallen agents killed in the line of duty, but hitherto lost to history. Although limited in scope, official employment records and documentary evidence provide insight regarding Foote, the era during which he served and the events surrounding his death.

Foote was killed Dec. 29, 1883, following a highly charged racial incident on Dec. 24, when he attempted to stop a group of White men from violently assaulting an African American male. Three White men were killed. Foote and other Black men were arrested and indicted for murder.

As Foote and the others awaited trial, tension escalated. During a meeting on Christmas Day, townspeople reportedly decided to take the law into their own hands. A few nights later on Dec. 29, 1883, an angry crowd stormed the jail and killed four African American prisoners, including Foote.

Despite the circumstances under which he lived and died, Foote’s history suggests a life marked by a distinguished trajectory. Born June 27, 1843, in Vicksburg, Miss., into the city’s free African–American community, he is believed to have attended Oberlin College in Ohio sometime after the Civil War. By 1867, during Reconstruction, Foote had returned to Mississippi where he took up residence in Yazoo City and became the city constable. From 1870–1871, he represented Yazoo County in the state legislature while serving as town marshal and circuit clerk. In 1876, he became the city’s tax collector and by 1880, he was enforcing federal liquor tax laws as a federal deputy collector or "revenuer." While facing violent resistance and opposition to liquor tax laws, Foote earned a solid reputation for his dedication to the rule of law and became a leader who advocated for newly won civil rights for the African American community.

Deputy collectors are believed to be direct forerunners of today’s special agents because their duties involved the enforcement of federal tax laws. They collected taxes from licensed wholesale and retail distilleries, seized illicit distilleries and moonshine products and arrested and prosecuted tax violators. After 1879, deputy collectors were armed and there is evidence that they carried badges.

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