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Thomas P. Foster (Murder of)

In 1942, during World War II, a Little Rock (Pulaski County) police officer shot and killed Sergeant Thomas P. Foster. Foster, an African American from North Carolina, had been inducted into the army in May 1941. He was shot while trying to investigate the police beating of a soldier in his company.

On March 22, 1942, a group of African-American soldiers from Company D of the Ninety-second Engineers stationed at Camp Joseph T. Robinson went to Little Rock’s African-American business and recreational district at Gaines and West 9th Street in search of off-post entertainment. One black soldier, Private Albert Glover, was arrested by white military police officers for public drunkenness. Little Rock police officers Abner J. Hay and George Henson joined the officers, who then proceeded to beat Glover. While Glover was being put in a truck by military policemen to return him to Camp Robinson, Sergeant Foster confronted the military police, whom he outranked, and asked why they had allowed civilian police to assault Glover and why they had been so rough with him. The military police attempted to arrest Foster, but a scuffle and chase ensued. When Foster was backed into an alcove in front of a black Presbyterian church, city police officer Hay—instead of arresting Foster—attacked him, and city officers beat Foster with a nightstick when it looked like Foster might best Hay in the fight. When Foster let go of Hay, Hay shot him three times in the abdomen and once in the right arm, as white military police looked on and brandished guns to hold back the growing interracial crowd. Reportedly, after Hay shot Foster, he reloaded his revolver and then lit and smoked a pipe. Foster died several hours later in the university hospital, known today as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. More city police officers arrived in the district that night to quell what the Arkansas Gazette reported as a riot, although there is no evidence that rioting occurred.

Officer Hay claimed that he had acted in self-defense, but African Americans demanded an investigation into Foster’s murder. Business leaders, attorney Scipio Jones, and such black organizations as the Negro Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and other groups outraged by this violent act argued that Hay had exceeded his authority and had “invaded the province of the military police.” After the shooting, military officials and local whites feared that Foster’s murder might result in black retaliation. Army trucks rushed to Camp Robinson, and the military police, assisted by the city police, rounded up black soldiers and isolated them on base. The Ninety-second Engineers were eventually removed from Camp Robinson and reportedly transferred to Camp Forrest in Tennessee.

Prosecuting attorney Sam Robinson, who investigated the murder at the Negro Citizens’ Committee’s request, questioned those who had witnessed the shooting and collected additional testimonies. Both black and white witnesses offered affidavits saying that Foster was lying “prostrate on the ground when he was shot” and that the “policemen deliberately stood over his body while he lay helpless on the ground.” Ultimately, Robinson concluded that Hay “was clearly acting in self-defense” when he shot and killed Foster. U.S. District Attorney General Francis Bittle asked a federal grand jury to further investigate the murder at the War Department’s request. The investigation, which began on June 1, 1942, was led by Samuel Rorex, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Before the case came before a federal grand jury in 1942, however, Hay joined the army. In a 19–4 vote, the grand jury, which included three African Americans, declined to indict him for Foster’s murder.

As African Americans in Little Rock mourned Sergeant Thomas P. Foster’s death, they remembered him as a well-respected gentleman who was one of the most disciplined and best-liked soldiers at Camp Robinson. Students at Little Rock’s Dunbar Junior College adopted the slogan “Remember Sergeant Thomas P. Foster” to protest his murder, and the Arkansas Association of Colored Women endorsed the local black citizens’ committee’s call for a thorough investigation of Foster’s murder at its annual meeting in Marked Tree (Poinsett County). The Arkansas State Press, a newspaper owned and operated by civil rights leaders L. C. and Daisy Bates, called for an increase in the number of black police officers in the African-American community (in time, eight were hired) and lamented that Foster was the “highest specimen of military manhood training to make the world safe for democracy, that now, he will never know.”

For additional information:
“AACW in 37th Session at Marked Tree.” Arkansas State Press, June 5, 1942, p. 8.

“City Patrolman Shoots Negro Soldier, Body Riddled While Lying on Ground.” Arkansas State Press, March 27, 1942, p. 1.

“Dunbar Students Adopt New Slogan.” Arkansas State Press, March 27, 1942, p. 1.

Kirk, John. “Ninth Street Matters: The Killing of a Black Army Sergeant by a White City Policeman on West Ninth Street in 1942 Led to the Appointment of Black Officers.” Arkansas Times, March 17, 2016. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/ninth-street-matters/Content?oid=4327138 (accessed March 14, 2017).

“Prosecutor Clears Patrolman Hay in Murder Case.” Arkansas State Press, April 24, 1942, p. 1.

“Soldiers Removed.” Arkansas State Press, April 3, 1942, p. 1.

Cherisse Jones-Branch
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 3/14/2017

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