Federal agent slain by lynch mob is honored

Columnist May 16, 2012

This is a story of courage and cowardice, honor and shame.

It is the story of William Henderson Foote, a federal law enforcement officer who was the victim of an 1883 lynch mob. His murder was ignored in his agency then, but the government now is honoring his memory.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Foote was the first African American federal law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty after Reconstruction, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

He was a “revenuer,” a deputy tax collector with Treasury’s Bureau of Internal Revenue, an ATF predecessor. The bureau didn’t bother to list him among the deaths of federal officers in its annual report, but the current ATF did unveil his name on the agency’s Memorial Wall during a celebration of his life Monday. And as part of National Police Week, his name has been unveiled on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

Foote, who also was a civil rights leader, state legislator and local constable, was killed on Dec. 29, 1883, in Yazoo City, Miss. He was 40 years old. A few days earlier, on Christmas Eve, “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, according to a history prepared by Barbara Osteika, an ATF historian.

This undated photo provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, shows William Henderson Foote. Federal authorities have paid tribute to Foote, saying he was the first black U.S. law enforcement official killed in the line of duty after Reconstruction. (AP)

President Obama’s comment at Tuesday’s 31st annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service — that “their willingness to risk everything” to protect others “is extraordinary” — certainly could apply to Foote.

After Foote and other black men confronted the whipping party, “it is impossible to say with certainty what happened next,” Osteika’s text continues. There was shooting, and “once the gunfire ended and the smoke cleared three White men were dead.”

It didn’t matter that Foote was a lawman or that he was trying to protect another citizen. What did matter was white men were dead and black men would have to pay. Foote and 10 other black men were arrested in the deaths. But that wasn’t enough for a lynch mob.

“Despite the earnest counsels of some few citizens on behalf of law and order, it became evident yesterday afternoon that the feeling of a large majority of the community was strongly in favor of executing summary vengeance upon the colored men,” said a New York Times lead on Dec. 30. The headline: “Lynched in Their Prison.”

“The crowd, now grown to fully 200 men, pressed ahead at a rapid walk toward the jail, in the extreme north-east part of the city.”

There was no shame for these cowards: “There was no masking, and not the slightest attempt at concealment,” said the Times. “Men called each other by name, and shook hands while they waited for the committee inside to bring out the prisoners,” after an iron gate fell to a battering ram.

There was no doubt the mob knew Foote was a federal law enforcement officer.

“ ‘Bring out that Internal Revenue Collector, we want him next,’ ” came the call from the yard where others were hanged, the newspaper reported.

Foote was ready.

“For a doomed man Foote took matters very coolly,” the Times said. “He walked over and took a drink from a bucket of water, then placed himself with his left side against the wall, and stood facing the spot where, as the door swung back, he would meet the first man who entered. . . . Foote fought like a tiger.”

But the mob shot him, once, twice, three more times. He still had signs of life.

“Six shots were fired with steady aim,” the report continued. “His forehead was shot away and blood and brain covered a space of the floor a yard square. Nearly all the bullets had been sent into his head. He was so mutilated as to be scarcely recognizable.”

As Foote’s daughter, Mattie Foote, told her granddaughter, Mattie Patricia Nolcox, “he died valiantly,” Nolcox said in an interview Tuesday.

The lesson Bettye Gardner, who wrote a scholarly article about her great-uncle, takes from his life, is that Foote “was someone who was very much committed to African Americans and the rights they had secured at the end of the Civil War, which by the end of Reconstruction had begun to unravel.”

Last year, the ATF presented Gardner with a Gold Star Medal to honor Foote, and Nolcox received one this week.

“I believe that in every way he was a heroic figure,” Gardner said.

Now, the federal government says so, too.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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