The first Quincy police patrol was in 1839. Since then, five officers have died in the line of duty. One of them was William H. Dallas. He was the first black police officer to lose his life in Quincy and the first in the state of Illinois. His story is both tragic and heroic, as he showed that through hard work and dedication, he could achieve success. But tragically, his life was cut short by a criminal’s bullet.
Dallas was born into a slave family in 1844, probably in South Carolina. He managed to escape and fled, first to Chicago and then to Quincy. He had heard of the good efforts of the community and particularly J.K. Van Doorn, which made Quincy a safe haven for escaped slaves. However, concerned about the Fugitive Slave Act, Dallas left for Canada. Only four months after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, he enlisted with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
On his enlistment form he listed his place of birth as Adams County, Illinois and gave his occupation as a “Farmer.” According to the form, he was 5’9” with hazel eyes and a light complexion. He was wounded when taking part in the fighting on James Island in South Carolina in July 1864, suffering an injury to his right scapula and shoulder joint. Following the incident he spent the next year recuperating and was in a hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, before being medically discharged from the army due to muscle atrophy on September 22, 1865. After the war, Dallas returned to Quincy.
On October 15, 1868 he married Virginia “Jennie” Winn and the couple had two sons, George and William Junior. He became a Quincy Police officer in 1874. He was known as “Billy” and was, according to the Quincy Whig, “one of the best officers on the force.” On May 29, 1876, Dallas and a fellow officer, James O’Brien, were on the city’s north side, where over the past several weeks a number of burglaries had occurred. The thieves had been operating late at night, plundering farms, and absconding with everything from chickens to wood. The police department was in pursuit of this gang and on that Monday night, received a tip from a citizen that aided their quest.
Nathaniel Pease of Eighth and Sycamore (the present home of Washington Elementary School) went into his barn and noticed a stash of stolen goods. He immediately notified the police. Officers Dallas and O’Brien were dispatched to the scene in the hope that they would be able to capture the criminals who had hidden the loot. Dallas and O’Brien staked out the barn that night and at 2 a.m. the two heard noises. Four men had entered the building but before the miscreants could get their hands on the stolen items, the officers shouted at them to halt. Instead, the intruders began shooting and Dallas and O’Brien returned fire, but, as far as they could tell, no bullets hit the mark.
Dallas and his partner were unaware that one of the four burglars had gone under the barn–the structure was raised several feet– until he fired three shots. One struck Dallas in the chin. The wounded officer was then hit by bullets from the other robbers, and he fell to the ground. Thinking that Dallas had died from his wounds, O’Brien began chasing the burglars.
Dallas, though severely wounded, had enough strength left to crawl to the Pease home, where help was summoned. Dallas was taken to his home and operated upon, though without success. He was declared dead at 10 a.m. May 30, 1876.
The shooting death shocked the community. In the wake of Dallas’s murder, a collection was raised to pay the mortgage for the home Dallas and his pregnant widow had recently purchased. His funeral took place on Thursday, June 1, at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on the corner of Ninth and Oak. The Quincy Whig noted that “the edifice was crowded by those who had assembled to pay the last sad tribute of respect to the memory of the gallant officer.” According to the Whig, “The police force entire attended the burial. A long line of carriages followed the remains to the cemetery, containing citizens who manifested the grief which prevails throughout the community over the sad event.”
After the murder, the police launched a massive investigation to track down the culprits. However, it was to no avail. Several arrests were made, but it was ascertained that those arrested were not party to the murder of Dallas. His murder remains unsolved.
William H. Dallas lived an extraordinary life. Born into slavery, he escaped, fought for the Union, and rose to become an officer of the law during a time when racial prejudice was the norm. His time in Quincy, therefore, is instructive. Quincy has always had a reputation as a welcoming and friendly community, and Dallas’s time in the Gem City shows that to be the case. Prior to emancipation, Dallas came to Quincy because it served as a place of refuge for runaway slaves. In the 1870s, though blacks were free but by no means equal, Dallas’s service as a police officer is another testament to the city’s progressive views on race.
Officer Dallas’s younger son, William H. Dallas, was born after his father died. He grew up in Quincy. Following the President’s call for volunteers for the 1898 Spanish-American War, William enlisted as a private in Company I of the Eight Illinois National Guard. The Governor had created “the Eighth Illinois National Guards, composed entirely, from colonel to private, of colored men, of the state of Illinois. The Eighth became the only colored regiment in our history commended entirely by Afro-Americans,” William’s captain was Frederick Ball. William “received more promotions than any man in the regiment, he receiving two commissions in less than two months.” No doubt his father would have been proud.
“City’s first fallen officer was a black man and Civil War hero,” Quincy Herald Whig, July 29, 1999, 12A.