Samuel Bush had something in common with Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Victor White, Emmet Till — and many more. Bush was a young Black man who was killed by white leaders without a trial. In Bush’s case, a white mob that included leaders of the village of Zion, Illinois, lynched him in Decatur, Illinois in 1893, while the white deputy in charge of the jailhouse allowed the lynching to occur. Accused of raping a white woman, Bush never had a chance to argue his case in court.
I write about Samuel Bush for two reasons. First, his story brushes my family history, which I tell in Chapter 18 of my novel White Bread. Samuel Bush’s lynching was covered in so much detail in local Decatur newspapers that I did not need to use much imagination when attempting to recreate Bush’s capture from his point of view. Essentially, after a white woman accused Bush of attacking her while asking for a drink of water, he was hunted down and captured, then sent by train to the Macon County jailhouse. The Black community of Decatur, which was quite well-organized, offered to help protect him from the white mob that was forming, which they correctly feared would try to lynch him. The sheriff, however, rejected their help, claiming to have things well in hand.
In the wee hours of the morning, twenty-five Mt. Zion men, armed with guns, sledge hammers, pick axes, and crow bars, arrived. The deputy on duty refused to give them the keys, so the men broke down doors to the cells while the guards looked on and the deputy yelled at them but apparently did little else. The men grabbed terrified Bush and hauled him out to the street, where the white mob cheered and whooped, “Lynch the bastard!” Not long afterward, Bush was dead, hanging from a tree. After debating whether to indict anyone for Bush’s murder, the grand jury of Macon County rendered its decision: no indictment. (Does this sound familiar?)
At the time, one of my great-grandfathers was a member of the Macon County Board of Supervisors. While the Supervisors were not directly involved with…