In Memory of Samuel Bush

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 the case, conceivably they could have brought pressure to bear. As the newspapers written at the time make clear, it was no secret who the lynchers were. But nothing happened, and as far as I know, my ancestor did nothing about it. Indirectly, then, the violent and unlawful death of Samuel Bush at the hands of white people who were never held accountable is part of a legacy I inherit. Many of us who are white inherit similar legacies, whether we know it or not.

So I remember Samuel Bush for a second reason, which is to implore white America to own and confront our ongoing collective fear of Black men. In its report Lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative reports that almost 4,000 Black men, women, and children were lynched during the time period between Reconstruction and World War II. Today’s string of police murders of young Black men does not come from nowhere, but rather is a continuation of this violent and racist history.

While body cameras will undoubtedly help document what actually happens in confrontations between police and those they apprehend, I believe that we are dodging the root problem: white fear of Black men. On news reports, one frequently hears that police officers shot because they feared for their lives, even when it turns out that the men they shot were actually unarmed. White fear is pervasive, and it touches the lives of Black males from the time they enter school. A recent study conducted by Stanford researchers and reported in Psychological Science found that teachers are more likely to discipline, and discipline more severely, children with African American-sounding names than children with white-sounding names. While there was no racial difference for the first infraction, the teachers were much more troubled when Black students committed a second infraction than when white students did the same. This racialized fear, then, becomes the basis for the unjust but pervasive school-to-prison pipeline, and the murders that are the center of public protest today.

Critical family history is a tool that can help people draw connections between our lives today and the past we inherit. The institutionalized devaluation of Black lives and white fear of Black men has long historic roots. It is time that those of us who are white confront that fear, learning to replace it with respect for the humanity of Black men. 

We will never know whether Samuel Bush, or the thousands of others who have been killed through white fear, was guilty of the crime for which he was charged. But we can commit ourselves now to ending this racialized dehumanization of people.


  1. Vernon Wimberly says:

    I am the Great Great grandson of Samuel Bush which I found to true 4 years ago, and without evil mental intent God said to me that those who harmed him their families and families shall be repaid by him for their fear of a peaceful people, and their continuous pattern of mental illness.

  2. Thank you for posting this, I am glad to make your acquaintance. Christine

  3. Why were men from mt Zion there? There seemed to be very few of them so I am wondering if they might not have gone through with it except for outside agitation? Thank you for this article. A colleague of mine wrote an essay regarding this lynching for Michael Pfeiffer’s book Beyond Dixie. I am also using it as part of my Ph.d. dissertation. But that question continually pops up: why we’re the mt.Zion men in Decatur. Any help is appreciated.
    Ann Sheppard, MA
    Southern Illinois university, Edwardsville

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