Emmett Till's funeral.

photo by: Bettman/Getty Images

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2023

How Places Connected to Emmett Till's Lynching Foster Remembrance and Reflection

Mamie Till Mobley was not going away quietly. Her son had been killed and she wanted to know why. She also wanted to expose exactly how he’d been murdered.

“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said, after the brutalized body of her only child, Emmett Till, arrived home in Chicago in September of 1955. The corpse was in a locked casket marked with the state seal of Mississippi, the place where at least two white men had lynched the 14-year-old African American boy for allegedly hitting on a white woman.

The details of the grisly lynching shocked the nation. Photos of Till’s mutilated face were shown in Black-owned publications and helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, as more outraged people joined the fight against racism. Even Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Till’s lynching to underscore the brutality of Jim Crow.

Mamie Mobley Till at Emmett Till's funeral.

photo by: Smithsonian Institution Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Mamie Till Mobley at her son’s funeral.

Yet, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, at a dubious trial witnessed by hundreds of people who filled every seat in the courthouse, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Till’s murderers. For the next 49 years, Till’s lynching would go largely unmentioned in local accounts of the area’s history. No one dared to publicly discuss it, and no official memorials in the county commemorated Till. But in 2005, a man named Jerome G. Little changed that. As the first Black president of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, a role that gave him considerable influence over most county-funded projects, Little founded the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a diverse group of residents determined to end the silence over the Till lynching, expose the terrible injustice that had happened, and facilitate racial healing.

A bullet-riddled sign interpreting Emmett Till's lynching.

photo by: National Trust staff

The bullethole-riddled sign that stood at the site where Emmett Till’s body is thought to have been removed from the Tallahatchie River. It has since been donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

“Jerome, he had a mission,” says Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a museum and community space located in Sumner, Mississippi, across the street from the courthouse where the trial took place. While conceiving the idea of the commission, Little was inspired by a visit to Tuskegee, Alabama, where a national historic site had been dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen. Little, who died in 2011, wanted a similar memorial for Emmett Till. But equally as important, he wanted a racial reckoning. “We needed to hold ourselves accountable for what took place in 1955,” Weems says.

In 2007, in front of the courthouse, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission and Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to the Till family. “We the citizens of Tallahatchie County recognize that the Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice. We wish to say to the family of Emmett Till that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one,” reads the document, in part. In addition to acknowledging the egregious crime that had gone unpunished, the commission pushed for the courthouse to be restored to its original 1955 appearance and for the creation of an Emmett Till museum. It ultimately met both goals.

And the commission’s mission continues today.

Historic preservationists, elected leaders, and other advocates are working to get the sites connected with Emmett Till’s death designated as a unit of the National Park Service—including Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where the trial occurred, and Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, where Till’s funeral took place.

In the early 1970s, the courthouse underwent a renovation designed by Mississippi architect Jack DeCell. The project significantly changed interior details from the way they looked in 1955. Pews replaced chairs, the windows were altered, and the room was painted mauve and condensed in size. “They just went so far overboard,” says Weems. “Some of the things that they did to it really felt like a complete erasure without tearing down the building.”

Years later, under Jerome Little’s leadership, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission stepped in.

“The restoration of the courthouse is a significant first step in that truth-telling process,” says Weems.

The interior of the restored Tallahatchie County Courthouse.

photo by: Langdon Clay/Belinda Stewart Architects

The restored courtroom at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where the trial of Till’s killers took place.

The exterior of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse.

photo by: The Washington Post/Getty Images

The courthouse’s exterior.

Belinda Stewart Architects of Eupora, Mississippi, took on the preservation project. The local community was also consulted about the building’s restoration, given that the painful history of Till’s lynching would inevitably be revived.

“The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi was brought into the project very early to help engage the community as they worked through this sensitive project,” says principal Belinda Stewart in an email. “It was not always easy or comfortable to bring light to these truths.”

And it took a village to proceed with the project, given the extent of disrepair. “The courtroom was not recognizable,” says Stewart.

“We needed to hold ourselves accountable for what took place in 1955.”

Patrick Weems

Her firm and the county applied for federal and state grants to help fund the restoration. Community members supported elected leaders who rallied behind the project.

Around 2008, the first phase of construction began with the stabilization of the building’s structure.

“The most noticeable change to the building had been in the replacement of the windows. Fortunately, the press coverage of the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers provided extensive photographic and video coverage,” says Stewart. The next phases included restoring the building’s exterior, the courtroom, and public areas, as well as reopening the transept hallways and upgrading the building’s technology and mechanical systems.

The painstaking efforts paid off. The Tallahatchie County Courthouse reopened in 2015, and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, in a building that once housed a local grocery store, opened its doors the same year.

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center

photo by: Ashleigh Coleman/Backroad Planet

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

“We sit in a circle and we hold the apology that was written in 2007,” says Weems. “We ask visitors to read one or two sentences of the apology and pass it to their neighbor. We really want to create an environment where people feel like they have a safe and courageous space to enter into this dialogue.” The center, which received a $120,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in 2019, also serves as a general resource for the immediate community. It offers parenting and exercise classes, economic development discussions, and a library.

But the main mission to preserve Emmett Till’s story—which includes the injustice that happened in the courtroom—and process its painful legacy remains unchanged.

“These are sites associated with traumatic events or periods of our history,” says Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for preservation at the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “You’re using these sites to help people understand not only those events, but also—through interpretation—the continued struggle for civil rights and justice in this country.”

“You’re using these sites to help people understand not only those events, but also—through interpretation—the continued struggle for civil rights and justice in this country.”

Tiffany Tolbert

Tolbert is helping to lead the collaborative efforts to establish a National Park Service unit honoring Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley that would include the courthouse and Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. It’s an involved process, she explains, that requires either federal legislation or a proclamation by the President of the United States utilizing the Antiquities Act. But the end results are sites that fall under the umbrella of the Park Service, which can provide access to more resources for staffing, programming, and maintenance.

A National Park Service designation also would help create a model for future historic sites with traumatic legacies, says Tolbert. “It’s showing how preservation can work to ensure these sites can remain open and perform modern functions, while maintaining their historic character.”

The exterior of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ

photo by: National Trust Staff

The church’s current exterior has been modified from its 1955 appearance; preservationists hope to see it restored.

Emmett Till’s fatal trip happened in August of 1955 in Money, Mississippi, during an era when racial terror was commonplace in the Jim Crow South. Till, who was visiting from Chicago, accompanied his cousins to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a local store frequented by African American customers. What happened in the minute or two that Till was left alone in the store with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, is unclear. She said Till hit on her and grabbed her waist, something Till’s cousin Simeon Wright disputed, given how little time Till had been alone in the store with Bryant.

But what was not in question was the loud whistle that Till blew outside the store. His cousins, knowing the taboo interactions between Black and white people in the South at the time, quickly gathered him and drove away. A few nights later, Till was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home by Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam. The men (and possibly others) beat, tortured, shot, and killed Till, tying his body to a heavy cotton-gin fan and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River, which they admitted to months after the trial.

Emmett Till and Mamie Mobley Till.

photo by: Library of Congress

Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley.

Despite her shock and grief, Mamie Till Mobley was committed to keeping her son’s legacy alive.

On Saturday, September 3, 1955, Emmett Till’s funeral took place at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago.

A reported 2,000 people filled the sanctuary for the funeral, while thousands stood outside the church and listened to the service on loudspeakers. Till’s body lay in repose for two additional days as tens of thousands of mourners gasped and cried walking by the open casket. Inevitably, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ became linked with Till’s memory.

Pallbearers at Emmett Till's funeral

photo by: Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

After the funeral, pallbearers carried Till’s casket out of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.

But that history is at risk of being lost if the church building isn’t rehabilitated soon.

“We have to tell the whole story of our country and not just sort of pick and choose what sort of narrative we want to have,” says Michelle Duster, a Chicago-based author and public historian who has written about the anti-lynching efforts of her great-grandmother Ida B. Wells.

“If you don’t preserve these spaces, they can easily be forgotten. And not just the space but the story can be forgotten,” Duster says.

Now there’s a push to restore Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ to its 1955 appearance—the same journey as the Tallahatchie County Courthouse.

In 1992, the church received a significant remodel that entailed resurfacing the building’s redbrick exterior with tan brick and changing the original windows. Inside, the sanctuary was also remodeled, and the balconies were removed.

The church was named a Chicago Landmark in 2006 and included on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2020.

“If you don’t preserve these spaces, they can easily be forgotten.”

Michelle Duster

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., a cousin of Emmett Till’s who was in Mississippi and witnessed the kidnapping, is part of a core group involved with restoring the church. In an oral history conducted by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian in 2011, Parker says Till’s legacy must be kept alive and defends his cousin without equivocation. “I was at a school speaking once, and a guy said, ‘Why are we talking about Emmett Till? … He was a … boy that did something that he shouldn’t.’ I said, ‘Well, he didn’t deserve to get killed, and we’re here to show you what this history was like back then.’”

Parker and his wife, Marvel Parker, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley Institute, are working with the church on the preservation efforts. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund provided a $150,000 grant for the building’s stabilization, which was completed in 2021. The Action Fund is also assisting the group with stewardship planning, engaging Chicago-based Bauer Latoza Studio and Berglund Construction to create a restoration plan for the facade and a rehabilitation plan for the sanctuary.

But not everyone is supportive of preserving historic sites dedicated to Emmett Till.

The house where Emmett Till and Mamie Mobley Till.

photo by: Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

The house in Chicago where Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley lived is now owned by a nonprofit, Blacks in Green.

In Mississippi, there are a number of signs marking the history around Till’s lynching, including one by the old Bryant Grocery Store, the funeral home that received the body, and a stretch of highway designated as the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. Vandals have damaged the highway and grocery store signs multiple times. “Some really don’t like it, you know,” says Parker, in his oral history. “They just really don’t like it.”

Patrick Weems says that although the community has been supportive of the restoration efforts, there have been other acts of vandalism.

A sign by the Tallahatchie River that memorialized the place where Emmett Till’s body is believed to have been removed from the water was shot up repeatedly. A fourth sign at this site is bulletproof.

Weems knows that preserving Till’s memory is the only way to make sure painful history can’t be denied or erased. “We save these sites and say, ‘No, this happens,’” he says. “This is part of our American story.”

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Alexis Clark writes about history with a focus on race, culture, and politics during World War II and the Civil Rights era. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School and the author of Enemies in Love: A German POW, A Black Nurse, and an Unlikely Romance (The New Press, 2018).

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