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Illinois experienced more lynchings than most Midwestern states

At a time when Southern states supported hanging Black men who were falsely accused of crimes against white residents, Illinois experienced more lynchings than most Midwestern states, according to data from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit organization that documents reported lynchings throughout the country.

So far, EJI has documented 4,447 that took place between the Civil War and World War II. About 4,144 or 93 percent of them occurred in Southern states that enslaved Blacks. Illinois was a free state, but according to EJI, approximately 56 lynchings occurred in the Prairie State during that period.

Though the EJI documents reported lynchings, many of these murders were identified as acts of “racial terrorism” that also included shootings, stabbings, and beatings. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till was reported as a lynching after two white men killed him in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

In Illinois, lynchings occurred in 14 counties from as far north as Cook County to as far south as Pulaski County. Most of those lynchings occurred in counties in downstate Illinois, where conservative whites have called home for decades.

In St. Claire County, which today includes the predominately Black city of East St. Louis, a total of 40 lynchings have been reported. Three lynchings occurred in Alexander County, the second highest total among the 14 counties. Twelve counties, including Cook County, had one reported lynching.

According to EJI data, Illinois has the third largest number of reported lynchings in the Midwest behind Oklahoma (75) and Missouri (60). But legally, Missouri was a slave state and Oklahoma geographically is closer to Southern states.

Other Midwest states where reported lynchings occurred include Kansas (18), Indiana (18), Ohio (15), Nebraska (5), Minnesota (3), Michigan (1), South Dakota (1) and North Dakota (1).

Mississippi has had 656 reported lynchings, higher than any U.S. state. The Magnolia State is followed by Georgia (595), Louisiana (549), Alabama (359), Texas (336) and Florida.

Of the 35 states, Illinois ranked 15th in reported lynchings, higher than the slave state of West Virginia, which ranks 16th with 37 lynchings.

The lynching in Illinois’ Cook County is believed to have been William Bell, a Black who was hanged on October 8, 1924. He was a 33-year-old married man who moved to Chicago from Georgia before he was accused of attacking a white person at 1358 Miller St., south of Roosevelt Road.

Bell was attacked by a racist mob and his skull bashed in with a baseball bat near what is today the University of Illinois at Chicago. A doctor with the county coroner said Bell’s skull had a fracture five inches long. After Bell was killed, the white press learned that he was not the individual who was identified by the crime victim.

Bell and Till are among thousands of victims whose names are etched in a monument at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

The memorial is part of EJI’s Remembrance Project that honors Blacks who died by lynchings. There was also Eugene Williams, the 17-year-old Black teenager killed by a white mob at the 29th Street beach in 1919. His death apparently has not been recorded as a lynching in EJI’s data.

THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE in Montgomery, Alabama, honors Black victims of lynching.

At the inaugural Juneteenth celebration last year at DuSable Museum of African American History, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said an effort is underway to install a memorial for Bell at the museum, and UIC.

Many lynchings in the South were never reported in white newspapers. Black journalist Ida B. Wells risked her life documenting lynchings and persuaded Illinois to pass its own anti-lynching legislation in 1910. According to America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, five of 18 lynchings in Illinois occurred after 1910.

In downstate Illinois, most of St. Claire County’s 40 lynchings occurred during the East St. Louis Riots in 1917. The three-day riot started when a smoldering labor dispute turned deadly as whites began brutally beating and killing African-Americans. By the end of the three-day riots, 39 Black individuals and nine whites were killed, but historians believe that more than 100 Blacks were killed.

East St. Louis had simmering racial tensions after thousands of Blacks from the South moved to the city that was separated from St. Louis, Missouri, by the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1917, many white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. Hundreds of Blacks were hired to fill in. After a City Council meeting on May 28, angry white workers lodged formal complaints against Black migrants. After the news spread that an armed Black man tried to rob a white man, mobs began beating Black residents. The National Guard was called in but left that June.

The civil unrest escalated on July 1 when a white man shot into Black homes. A group of Blacks returned fire and killed two men who turned out to be police officers investigating the initial shooting.

The next morning, angry whites left a meeting in the Labor Temple downtown and began beating Blacks with guns, rocks and pipes. They set homes on fire and shot Black residents as they fled their burning properties. Blacks were also lynched in other areas of the city. Some Blacks tried to swim or use boats to get to safety. Thousands tried to cross the Eads Bridge to St. Louis, to escape the carnage, but police closed the structure to prevent them from leaving the city.

In 2017, a group of over 100 Blacks marched across the Eads Bridge to mark the 100th anniversary of the East St. Louis Riots.

In 1909 in Cairo, Illinois, a city notoriously known for its racial tensions, a crowd of 10,000 white spectators watched the lynching of William “Froggie” James. The Black man was accused of raping and murdering Anna Pelly, a 24-year-old store clerk.

After he was arrested and placed in a county jail, a white mob grew outside the facility. They eventually broke into the facility and overpowered the security guards. Fearing for James’ safety, two officers took the Black man and drove him to another jail in Karnak, Illinois, located 27 miles north of Cairo.

About 300 white men followed the men on a freight train. They overpowered the men and took James back to Cairo, where a mob was waiting. They tried to hang him, but the rope broke. So they pumped 500 bullets in his body. They then took his dead body to the murder scene.

ida b wells 2 sized
Ida B. Wells

One man cut off James’ head and put it on a spike to show the crowd. The rest of James’ corpse was set on fire. After the flames were extinguished, some whites dismembered the remains and broke his bones and kept them as souvenirs.

The reported lynchings in the South were equally bad, if not worse.

According to the EJI, Southern lynchings were commonly used to defend slavery. EJI officials said between 1830 and 1860, Southern mobs killed an estimated 130 white individuals and at least 400 enslaved Blacks. Most Blacks were lynched after they were suspected of leading a slave rebellion.

EJI officials said Southern lynchings of Blacks were worse than white lynchings because they often featured extreme brutality such as burning, torture, mutilation, and decapitation.

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