Preservationists push for the landmarking of Emmett Till’s Chicago home

A Matter of Urgency

Preservationists push for the landmarking of Emmett Till’s Chicago home

The South Side Chicago home where Emmitt Till lived with his mother and family before he was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. (Charles Orlowek/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, on August 28, marked 65 years since Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black Chicagoan, was kidnapped, brutalized, and lynched by a white mob while visiting relatives in Mississippi. He had been accused of flirting with a young white woman at a local grocery store—his horrific murder carried out as an act of retribution. His killers were eventually acquitted. (The woman who accused Till of offending her years later admitted that she had fabricated the entire encounter.)

Seen as an early watershed moment in the American civil rights movement, the death of Emmett Till carries particularly significant weight today during a period of historic unrest as Black Americans and their allies protest against social injustice, structural racism, and acts of violence perpetrated against African Americans by law enforcement. It would make sense then, that there is now an increased push to preserve and protect the boyhood home of Till, an enduring civil rights icon in death, as an official city landmark.

As reported by Crain’s Chicago Business, there have been efforts in the past to landmark the home, a “two-flat” in the West Woodlawn section of Chicago’s South Side, but those have never come to fruition. However, considering the current state of the nation and the fact that the home has been bought and sold twice in the past four years has brought an additional sense of urgency in the move to landmark it.

“Making it a landmark would remind people for generations that Emmett’s death spearheaded the civil rights movement in this country,” Ollie Gordon, a 72-year-old suburban Chicago resident and relative of Till who was living at the West Woodlawn home during the summer when her older cousin was slain hundreds of miles away, told Crain’s. “The time is right now.”

The recent and relatively quick ownership turnover at 6427 S. St. Lawrence has worried preservationists leading the charge to landmark it as it signals that something might not be right with the 2,308-square-foot property, especially since, per Crain’s, the second time that it sold, in 2019, was for 39 percent lower than its previous sale price in 2016.

While not currently landmarked, the home is included in the Emmett Till Memory Project, an app that includes 22 different sites, most of them in Mississippi, associated with Till. Five of them, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, are in and around Chicago including the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ where Till’s high-profile open casket funeral—a choice made by Till’s mother so that the world could be exposed to the consequences of racism at its most barbaric—was held. The church was designated a Chicago landmark in 2006.

According to the Sun-Times, it’s now evident that there are problems with the home, and if the building is not protected by the city, they could potentially lead to demolition.

As explained Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, the last remaining tenant in the building gave notice last month, “because there were issues with the building, pipes bursting in the basement and whatnot. This building is likely now vacant,” he told the Sun-Times. “It’s more pertinent than ever that it be landmarked, as it’s now extremely vulnerable.”

Days ahead of the anniversary of Till’s death, Preservation Chicago formally kicked-off the landmarking process by submitting a proposal to Maurice Cox, commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning & Development. If approved, the proposal would then go before the Chicago Commission on Landmarks. In the event that the commission moves to declare the home a Chicago landmark, it would be protected from demolition or any major overhauls to the building’s exterior.

Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, who represents the 20th Ward, told Crain’s that she’s prepared to write a letter to the Chicago Commission on Landmarks urging it to bestow landmark status to apparently in-rough-shape home. However, she’s holding off until family members of Till weigh in on the matter and give their blessing. (Based on her public statements, Gordon is on board.) “We want to make sure the memory of Emmett Till living in that home is preserved and honored,” she said. “But I don’t know what his family’s wishes are, and I don’t want to disrespect them.”