A year ago, when Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, brought to fruition his vision for a national memorial to victims of racial violence in America, it was none other than Oprah Winfrey who gave us the first tour.
And that “60 Minutes” episode that went viral last April has birthed an impending memorial here for the lone known victim of a lynching in Cook County — as identified by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., aka the Lynching Museum.
His name was William Bell, and according to the national museum that has memorialized 4,400 victims of lynchings that took place between 1877 and 1950 — the 33-year-old, married, African-American man who had migrated to Chicago from Georgia, was attacked by a white mob on Oct. 8, 1924, his skull bashed in with a bat.
The incident occurred at 1358 Miller St., south of Roosevelt Road on or near what is now the University of Illinois at Chicago property. One Otto Epstein was arrested and charged in Bell’s murder, according to Cook County Morgue documents unearthed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office, which has worked for a year on the memorial project being unveiled at Thursday’s Cook County Board meeting.
“After Oprah did the ’60 Minutes’ piece, 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 Sun-Times.
“We also learned that in retrospect, the press quickly learned the person who was lynched was not the individual who was subsequently identified by the victim of crime which prompted the mob action,” she said. “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.”
The historic marker is part of the Lynching Museum’s Remembrance Project. The two-part project provides markers to counties nationwide where lynchings occurred — to be installed on or near lynching sites — followed by an actual monument to the lynchings to be installed in settings inviting reflection, such as museums.
Preckwinkle has partnered with the DuSable Museum of African American History, which will host the monument, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose campus now encompasses the site of Bell’s lynching.
The morgue documents about Bell’s murder provide information on the manner of death, the perpetrator, witnesses and jurors. The county coroner’s physician writes that he “found a fracture of skull five inches long,” and that an examination of the skull “found hemorrhage and injury to the brain.” The coroner’s physician concluded that Bell died from shock and skull fracture “due to external violence.”
The Lynching Museum and its effort to build tentacles confronting America’s violent legacy of racism and white supremacy that still reverberates today was inspired by other nations’ spaces that seek to heal rifts among people of one land, including the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
“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 Evan Milligan, program manager at the Lynching Museum.
“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.”
Stevenson’s poignant vision, with its nearby companion Legacy Museum, both built with private funds, has been widely lauded. The New York Times wrote: “There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.” Emory University: “What we’ve seen prompts an inner search for empathy and for courage. ‘What would I have done then …?’ And then, ‘What am I prepared to do now?’ ”
In the museum’s simple yet gut-wrenching design, rows and rows of six-feet-tall, corten steel monuments — inscribed with the names of lynching victims — hang from a canopy, eye level at first, a few feet from the ground, which slants downward, so that as you walk, the sea of 800 coffin-like structures eventually hang above, engulf and impact.
“Cook County and DuSable had started having discussions and reached out to make us aware that the only recorded lynching in Cook County happened to have occurred on or near our campus, so obviously we were very interested in this project,” said Marcus Betts, UIC assistant vice chancellor for external engagement.
“My understanding is that the actual street doesn’t exist anymore. We’re in the process of finding out just exactly where the incident took place on or near campus, and look forward to our faculty working with our students to essentially create learning opportunities around this horrific part of American history,” Betts said.
The monument to be installed at DuSable is a duplicate of the hanging monuments at the Lynching Museum, because each of those hanging monuments has a copy, rows and rows of them lined up on the museum’s grounds, waiting to be claimed by counties nationwide participating in the Remembrance Project.
The DuSable installation, likely to go up by spring 2020 in a garden-like setting on the grounds of the South Side museum, will be called the William Bell Remembrance Project.
“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 DuSable President/CEO Perri Irmer.
“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.”