William H. Dallas was born into slavery and escaped to Chicago, Illinois, before enlisting in the Union Army and becoming a police officer in Quincy. He had served with the Quincy Police Department for two years when he was shot and killed, becoming the first known African-American law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in the state of Illinois.
His story is indeed both tragic and heroic. Born into an enslaved family around 1844 in South Carolina, Dallas escaped slavery and first went to Chicago before heading to Quincy, Illinois, which had then become a safe haven for escaped slaves. But Dallas was worried about the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people so he left for Canada. And about four months after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, he enlisted with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Dallas was wounded while fighting in July 1864 and spent the next year recovering in a hospital in Worcester, Mass., before being medically discharged from the Army due to muscle atrophy in September 1865. After the war, he came back to Quincy, got married, and became a Quincy police officer in 1874. Simply known as Officer Billy, he was said to be one of the best officers on the force but on May 29, 1876, the unfortunate thing happened.
On that day, Dallas and his fellow officer, James O’Brien, were assigned to the north side of the city which had recorded a number of burglaries over the past weeks. The thieves usually operated late at night. Dallas and O’Brien had received a tip that day from a citizen. Nathaniel Pease of Eighth and Sycamore said he entered his barn and found a stash of stolen goods.
Dallas and O’Brien, who were dispatched to the scene, staked out the barn that night of May 29 and at 2 a.m. heard noises. Four men had entered the barn and before they could grab the stolen items, they were confronted by Dallas and O’Brien who ordered them to put their hands up.
Instead of doing so, the men started shooting and Dallas and O’Brien returned fire. One of the men, who had gone under the barn, fired three shots, and one hit Dallas in the chin. Dallas was hit again by the other men. O’Brien, who thought that Dallas had died from his wounds, started chasing the men.
Meanwhile, Dallas was able to crawl to the home of Pease for help. He was taken to his home where a doctor treated him but he died a few hours later. While most accounts say that his murder remains unsolved, Officer Down Memorial Page, a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring America’s fallen law enforcement officers, states that three men were later arrested and charged with murder.
Dallas’ death shocked many because of his background story. He had risen from slavery to become an officer of the law amid racism, only to be killed in the line of duty. His funeral at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on the corner of Ninth and Oak drew a large crowd and reports said a long line of carriages followed the remains to the cemetery. Money was also raised to pay the mortgage for the home the gallant officer and his wife had recently purchased.