Nearly a century after a brutal murder, Chicago’s only lynching victim gets memorial

A man who had come to Chicago from Georgia, but was killed by a racist mob will be memorialized by a nationwide project that acknowledges the thousands killed across the nation

Lynching Memorial
Part of a statue depicting chained people is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial aims to teach about America's past in hope of promoting understanding and healing. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

On Oct. 8, 1924, William Bell, a 33-year-old married man who had migrated to Chicago from Georgia was attacked by a racist mob, his skull bashed in with a baseball bat not far from the present-day site of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He is the only known victim of a lynching in Cook County, Ill. But for 95 years, there has been no public acknowledgement of his murder. But that will now change.

READ MORE: Say their names: Lynching memorial to open in Alabama, bringing alive the realities of racial terror

Cook County Board president, and Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle has been working on a memorial to Bell for about a year and was expected to unveil the monument at a board meeting on Thursday, she said.

The idea, she said came from the work of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson had a vision to highlight every person in America that was victimized by racial violence. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (The Lynching Museum), houses memorials to 4,400 victims from all over the country that were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

“After Oprah did the ’60 Minutes’ piece [on the museum], we learned there had been one such documented murder in our county, and that there’s a monument to that victim at the national museum,” Preckwinkle told the Chicago Sun-Times. “So we’ve applied for a marker in Cook County for Mr. William Bell. If we’re going to address the racism that continues to challenge our society today, we have to acknowledge and understand past and present impacts,” Preckwinkle said.

The groundbreaking marker is a part of The Lynching Museum’s Remembrance Project. It will provide counties nationwide the chance to install markers near or where the lynching happened, along with an actual monument in memorandum of the lynching to be be installed for reflection.

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Partnering with the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, Preckwinkle secured a home for the monument.

Evan Milligan, program manager at the Lynching Museum said, “the vast majority of the 4,400 lynchings took place in the Deep South, and we have monuments by county for every county where we found a victim, even if it’s just one,” he said. “For states on the border, in the Northeast, Northwest, Midwest and West Coast, the way the memorial is designed, we have monuments for those counties with the largest numbers of victims, and then monuments to the other victims by state.”

Although Bell’s death was not a lynching by noose, as is commonly thought, but planners say they won’t differentiate.

“When you think about a ‘lynching,’ what comes to mind is a body hanging from a tree, ‘Strange Fruit,’ as Billie Holliday called it. But Emmett Till was lynched,” said Perri Irmer, DuSable President and CEO.

“He wasn’t hung. He was beaten. He was blinded. He was shot, and he was thrown in the river. That was a lynching. And William Bell was beaten to death with a baseball bat. He wasn’t hanged. But that was a lynching,” Irmer said. “So this will also entail our confronting the definition of a lynching. It’s the beginning for meaningful dialogue and historical reflection.”

READ MORE: Necessary Evil: Why Oprah Winfrey’s ’60 Minutes’ report aired photos of lynchings

The Bell monument is projected to be installed at the DuSable on Chicago’s south side and is a duplicate of the hanging monuments at The Lynching Museum in Montgomery. Each of those hanging monuments has a replica, which are lined up on the museum’s grounds, waiting to be claimed all across the country by counties that participating in the Remembrance Project.

The monument is slated to go up by spring 2020 in a garden-like setting on the grounds of the DuSable museum, the monument will be named the William Bell Remembrance Project.

“When we start a partnership with a community, we ask that it begin with a marker installation or soil collection that tells the story of the individual or group of people who were lynched,” said Milligan.