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ATF Bureau Honors First African-American Officer Killed In Line Of Duty

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Family of William Henderson Foote beside his name on the memorial wall at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Elliott Francis
Family of William Henderson Foote beside his name on the memorial wall at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Federal law enforcement officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) yesterday honored the first African-American federal agent killed in the line of duty after Reconstruction.  

William Henderson Foote was a deputy collector with the U.S. Treasury in Mississippi in 1883. A forerunner of today's ATF special agents, Foote enforced liquor laws and arrested moonshiners who were more inclined to kill his kind, so-called 'revenuers,' than be taken into custody.

It was an already harsh job made nearly impossible because of who Foote was," said Todd Jones, acting ATF director.

"Being the deputy collector to collect taxes in Yazoo City, Miss. was a tough gig," said Jones during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. May 14. "But being African-American in post-Reconstruction south who has a gun and a badge with federal arrest authority? An incredible story of courage."

On Christmas Eve of 1883, Foote stepped in to protect a black man who was about to be lynched by three white men. Shots were fired and the three men were killed. Foote was arrested and charged with murder. Days later, while awaiting trial, another lynch mob broke into the jail and shot Foote, killing him. 

Patricia Nolcox, Foote's great-granddaughter, said her grandmother made sure the family never forgot what happened.  

"She talked about what a wonderful man he was, how committed he was to justice, how fearless he was, and the thing she always said, was when they approached him to kill him, how he fought like a tiger," Nolcox said. 

Foote’s descendants joined agents and other ATF officials in a memorial ceremony Monday in the District for the slain deputy collector whose name was added to the Bureau's famed memorial wall of agents killed in the line of duty. 

Dr. Betty Gardner, Foote’s great-niece and a historian, helped document his story. "To have rediscovered him and to really give him his place in history is, well, it's incredible," she said. 

 A total of 185 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have died in the line of duty. 

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