BY PAM ADAMS
He was George Stewart or S.W. Stewart or another variation. The name changed from newspaper to newspaper. He may have been part Indian, according to the newspaper in Toluca where his alleged crime occurred.
Several points are consistent among the brief accounts picked up by newspapers around the country. He was a Negro found hanging from a tree near Lacon in November 1898.
At least 100 men from Toluca broke into the Lacon jail, where he was taken after his arrest for hitting Mary O’Brien of Toluca in the head with a stone, knocking her unconscious. When the sheriff refused to turn him over to the mob, they broke down the door and dragged Stewart from the cell.
By the time the sheriff found him, he was hanging from a low limb of a tree in Hall Cemetery, just east of Lacon, a few yards from the road, dressed only in undershirt and drawers, according to the Toluca Star. A coroner’s jury later ruled he died by strangulation “at the hands of persons unknown.”
The long-ago lynching in central Illinois might never have come up were it not for the Equal Justice Initiative, some 700 miles away in Montgomery, Ala. EJI, founded by acclaimed human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, recently opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial to lynching victims, following extensive research on the legacy of lynching, primarily in the South but also in other regions of the country.
The memorial pays homage to more than 4,000 victims, known and unknown, of the racial terror that plagued the South and other parts of the country following the Civil War. Stewart is listed by yet another name, F.W. Steward, on one of four steel-column memorials devoted to lynchings in Illinois.
Lynchings were a common response to white-on-white crime during the 1800s. But Stevenson and others who research lynching make a distinction between lynchings solely for alleged crimes and racialized lynchings backed up by a legacy of slavery and legal racial discrimination. They also use a broader definition than hanging.
Researchers note the difficulties and differences between researching racial terror lynchings in the North and South.
Michael Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has written two books on lynching, including “Lynching Beyond Dixie.” Much of the research on racial terror lynchings in the North and West is incomplete, he says. Though he credits EJI for raising interest in many communities, he says the field needs much more investigation.
Lynchings in the Midwest often lack good documentation, Stevenson told the on-line magazine, Belt. While white southerners were often willing to glorify racial violence, white northerners tended to be more discreet, particularly after the early 1900s.
The cultural memory loss means, in some ways, the Midwest is more prone to historical amnesia than the South, Stevenson says in the interview.
Two exceptions may be the Springfield race riot of 1908, which led to the founding of the NAACP, and the East St. Louis race riots of 1917. Mobs of white people shot, beat and tortured at least 40 and as many as 200 Black East St. Louis residents over three days beginning July 1, accounting for the majority of 56 racial terror lynchings EJI documented in Illinois.
Both cities commemorated the 100th anniversary of the events.
Many Decatur residents acknowledge the lynching of Sam Bush, a day-laborer from the South lynched in 1893. A lynch mob from Mt. Zion dragged him from the Decatur jail, where he was being held on rape charges. Bush prayed and protested his innocence as the mob prepared the noose, according to newspaper reports. The mob hung him from a telegraph pole across from Macon County Courthouse.
The most recent lynching documented for central Illinois occurred in November 1943, near Camp Ellis, the massive military training center that housed German prisoners of war. One of a gang of farmers shot and killed Pvt. Hollie Willis, 19, of Chicago, who had allegedly made harassing phone calls to women from an unoccupied farm house near the base.
“Negro, Found In Farm Home, Shot by Farmer Posse,” read the headline in the Canton Daily Ledger. “Soldier Lynched at Camp Ellis By Farm Posse,” said the Chicago Defender, one the nation’s largest Black newspapers. The farmers thought Willis was another Black soldier accused of raping a white woman. Less than 10 minutes after hearing evidence from 10 witnesses, a coroner’s jury ruled the shooting was justifiable homicide.
Marion Cornelius has not heard anything about the incident in the 15 years he has curated exhibits at Easley Pioneer Museum, which preserves Camp Ellis history.
If there was racial tension surrounding the incident, it wouldn’t surprise him. “I’m 80, and I can still remember racial tensions in this area stemming from the Civil War” when brothers fought against brothers, he said.
Many veterans once stationed at Camp Ellis have visited the museum, Cornelius said. Even some former German POWs have returned. But he doesn’t recall a Black alumni of the military base ever visiting.