The Foote family followed a general migration pattern of most early settlers into Mississippi. William’s father hailed from Virginia, his mother from Alabama, and William was born June 27, 1843, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the 1850 Vicksburg census, the Foote family lived as part of the city’s free Black community, his father, David, a barber, and his mother Millie a homemaker. They resided in the home of William’s paternal grandparents, Billie and Kitty Foote, he a drayman, and she a well-known midwife. Kitty Foote was considered the wealthiest free Black woman in Vicksburg; in the 1860 Vicksburg federal census, her total wealth is listed as $1,700, the equivalent of approximately $40,000 today.
At the start of the Civil War the following year, William Foote, at 19, entered the military; however, on which side he served remains unsettled. Despite the lore suggesting that it was the Confederate Army, Foote’s own testimony provides the biggest clue. In Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer of 1876, as part of a Congressional inquiry into the violence of the Mississippi 1875 elections, Foote was among various officials and citizens who testified. During his official testimony, Foote gave his background, stating, "…I was away from there [Vicksburg] during the war." And when asked, "Where were you during the war?" Foote responded, "In Virginia, in the army."
With the end of the Civil War, the promise of a new path for African-Americans was buttressed by the nation’s first civil rights legislation of 1866. Foote is thought to have attended Oberlin College in Ohio, and around 1867, he settled down in Yazoo City. Along the way, he married a native Mississippian named Mattie, who bore him three children. The Courageous Yazooan
In 1869, during the period of Reconstruction, the military governor of Mississippi, General Adelbert Ames, charged with filling numerous civil positions with qualified individuals, appointed Foote as the Constable of Yazoo City. A citation later noted "… he carried out his duties with courage and discretion."
Foote was rather adept at handling confrontations, never hesitating to defend himself. In one account, a young man who reportedly set out to teach Foote a lesson, apparently trying to diminish his authority as constable, was instead, "thrashed" by the powerful Foote. Foote soon became a well-known figure among the citizens of Yazoo City who took notice of the young constable’s audacious activity.
By the election of November 1869, the first in which Yazooans were able to fully participate, Foote ran for office on the Republican Party’s ticket. Although a newcomer to politics and despite the very violent and hostile crowds through which he navigated, he never flinched when campaigning. He always appeared fully composed and greeted friends with cheer. The local Democratic Party pulled out all stops to win the election when they handed out pork and flour, and threw clothes and sometimes even money into the crowd to sway the African–American vote. Foote rigorously campaigned, moving rapidly from one town to another, attempting to garner African–American votes, most of whom were in the Republican fold.
In one remarkable and documented event, Foote mounted a horse and rode to a site where 400 voters had been prevented from reaching the polling booths to vote. The culprit turned out to be Henry Dixon and his gang of ruffians who were well-known throughout the town as troublesome instigators. Upon Foote’s arrival, Dixon threatened to kill Foote if he interfered. Foote rallied the crowd with words on the importance of the new state constitution which granted legitimacy to their freedom and to their right to vote. Foote then fearlessly led the line of voters into town to vote, unobstructed by any further harassment.
White voters were so incensed by Foote’s political activism that they massed and confronted Foote at a gathering of Freedmen. A potential threat of extreme violence developed between the two sides. Foote and his supporters would neither stand down, nor stop advocating for basic civil rights, by now guaranteed in two of the three Reconstruction Amendments: the 13th ended slavery, and the 14th defined citizenship and guaranteed due process of law and equal protection. The 15th, which would be passed the following year, granted voting rights regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." As the men converged, both groups drew pistols ready for "the ball to commence," the era’s reference to the start of violence. Only with the arrival and intervention of Charles Morgan, Sheriff Albert Morgan’s brother, did the developing standoff de-escalate with both groups laying down their guns. The election continued and the Republicans were voted into office.
Foote was voted into the Mississippi Legislature representing Yazoo County from 1870 to 1871, becoming one of a number of African-Americans achieving political power throughout the South. Simultaneously, he held the position of town marshal, and eventually became the town’s circuit clerk. Foote’s role in politics and law enforcement was aided with the passage of the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871 – Acts to enforce and protect the voting rights of African-Americans – along with the Civil Rights Act of 1871, informally known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which attempted to limit the Klan’s activities. Still, Foote often found himself mixed-up in the general violence that permeated the town’s politics as White resistance to the enfranchisement of African-Americans deepened.
In 1873, Foote advocated for a political party formed by "Southerners and African– Americans" to the complete exclusion of "Northerners." As such, he campaigned for a Democrat named Hilliard who was running for re-election as sheriff.
Hilliard was soundly beaten in the November election, but refused to vacate the Sheriff’s Office, preventing a seamless transition for the newly elected Sheriff Albert Morgan, a Republican. This stand-off continued until January 1874, when the newspaper reported that the "ball had opened," referring to the violent event that finally settled the transfer of the office.
While Hilliard was away, Morgan’s deputies physically took over and secured the sheriff’s premises, and then waited to see how Hilliard would react to the forcible takeover. Hilliard fumed when he heard what had happened, and along with his supporters, one of whom was Foote, set off to take back the Sheriff’s office.
Upon arrival, Hilliard and his friends broke the door down, and when Hilliard fired a shot into the office, a shot from inside was fired back, and Hilliard was killed. Sheriff Albert Morgan moved into his new office and braced himself to handle the mounting political and racial strife between Democrats and Republicans, and Whites and African-Americans in 1874 Yazoo City, Mississippi.
This Navy Colt .36 pistol was the gun of choice for moonshiners and ruffians warring with Deputy Collectors. By the late 1870s, the moonshiners had become so violent towards alcohol tax enforcers that the U.S. Government Ordnance Department issued Springfield breech loading single shot rifles (top and left) to Collectors for distribution among their Deputy Collectors for enforcement operations. These rifles were also known as 'Trapdoor Springfields.'
On September 2, 1875, Foote was shot while attending a speech given by Sheriff Albert Morgan. Democratic instigators provoked the crowd and a melee broke out. The Yazoo Banner blared: 'A Riot in Yazoo City—. The Natural Result of Radical Teaching,"' while nearly a week later, The Yazoo City Democrat reported that W.H. Foote was 'still suffering from his wound.'
By 1876, Foote served as a city or county Deputy Delinquent Tax Collector, and in 1877, he ran for sheriff of Yazoo City, losing to the Democratic candidate, though he rigorously campaigned as an Independent candidate.
On Duty— Yazoo City
In 1880, James Hill, an African-American BIR Collector headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, appointed Foote to serve as a deputy collector in Yazoo City. It was standard practice at the time for all BIR collectors to hire their own deputy collectors. By then, Foote was well- known in Yazoo City for his professional demeanor and his steadfastness in standing up against the persistent and growing discrimination targeted against the African-American community
Yazoo City was a river town, and the Yazoo River was a key mode of transportation used by the area’s farmers to ship their cotton to market in Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans both before and after the Civil War. On the return trip, the steamboats brought Yazoo City's merchants and farmers various goods, including liquor. Deputy Collector Foote's duties involved collecting the revenue from liquor wholesalers and retailers.
The 1880 census record indicating William Foote’s occupation as a Revenue Collector.
By the 1870s, there were about 41 liquor stores and saloons in Yazoo City, a town of fewer than 2,500 people. Most businesses had no problems providing a steady supply of liquor for their customers. In 1877, to ship a barrel of whiskey from Vicksburg to Yazoo City cost one dollar. After the war, steamers, working strictly as trade boats on the Yazoo River, carried kegs of beer along with other necessary provisions and merchandise.
The bigger steamboats, known as palace steamers or show boats, traversed the rivers of the Delta, including the Mississippi, touting bars stocked with assorted alcohol, including wine. It was a common business practice for steamboat owners to sell liquor through onboard barroom concessions.
The Kate Adams, one of the most famous steamboats in the Delta, had liquor, gambling, bands and dancing. The Yazoo River boats, steamboats of a smaller tonnage, may not always have had a bar, but they almost always had an abundant amount of whiskey on hand for the crew and passengers.
By 1883, with reconstruction having ended six years earlier, the South’s period of disenfranchisement of African-Americans was well under way. Racial tensions continued to pit citizen against citizen, tearing apart the communities of the South. Yazoo City was no exception. Foote’s reputation as a Revenuer and community leader would be called upon one last time.
John T. Posey was a merchant who ran a boot and shoe store in Yazoo City, and was known about town as a "high toned honorable gentleman." His father was famed Confederate General Carnot Posey.
On December 24, 1883, John Posey rode into town looking for an African– American man named John James, whom he intended to whip. Accounts of the time speculate on possible reasons as to what John James may have done to cause John Posey to feel the need to correct a perceived slight: a contest over the "smiles of a belle" at a Yazoo City African–American ball, a verbal insult, or perhaps, even an unsettled barroom brawl. The only thing known for certain is that on Christmas Eve, John Posey had decided to seek retribution.
The term whipping is a euphemism for a beating, and along with burning, shooting, and hanging, are all various forms of lynching, the most common act of violence used against African– Americans. Since the end of the Civil War, government officials —such as Freedmen Bureau agents, U.S. Army officers and soldiers, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Secret Service operatives, Department of Justice examiners and U.S. District Attorneys— were all charged to enforce civil rights laws by arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of violence against African-Americans. Despite limited success against the Ku Klux Klan, by the end of reconstruction, civil rights enforcement had all but ended. Still, in 1883, a whipping for an African –American, at minimum, constituted an aggravated assault— - at worst, it was murder.
Shielding a Man From a "Whipping"
Foote and his family were attending Christmas Eve church services when a townsperson interrupted to warn Foote that John Posey had ridden into town looking to whip John James. Like so many times before, Foote didn’t hesitate to respond to a threat against an African– American in Yazoo City. 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 left his family and congregation and proceeded into town to intervene. Upon arriving at the scene, Deputy Collector Foote placed himself between John James and the "whipping party" which included John Posey, his brother Carnot Posey, and a man named Jasper Nichols.
All were armed, and despite Revenuer Foote’s protests, John Posey made it clear that he was determined to avenge his honor. By then, a group of African –Americans had gathered around and behind Foote in a show of solidarity. It is impossible to say with certainty what happened next, but once the gunfire ended and the smoke cleared three White men were dead: the two Posey brothers and Jasper Nichols.
Foote suffered a head injury from a blow by either a stick or the end of a revolver. John James escaped from town only to be gunned down later by a posse attempting to arrest him. Foote and ten other African–Americans were arrested and placed in the Yazoo City jail. A coroner’s jury indicted Foote and three others as principles along with seven others as accessories.