Bill establishing Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ as a National Monument introduced to Senate

Heartbreakingly Important

Bill establishing Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ as a National Monument introduced to Senate

Roberts Temple in Chicago (Sharon Robert Hayes/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) has introduced bipartisan legislation that would formally establish the Roberts Temple Church of God in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago as a National Historic Monument. The designation would offer the historically significant church an elevated level of federal support and ensure, per the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the “National Park Service will preserve, protect, and interpret its powerful impact on American civil rights history for generations to come.”

The National Trust included Roberts Temple, built in 1922 and subsequently expanded, on its 2020 list of American’s Most Endangered Places not due to any imminent threat of demolition (it’s a protected Chicago Landmark) but because it is in urgent need of rehabilitation work. Potential designation as a U.S. National Parks Service-managed historic site will aid the Pentecostal congregation, founded in 1916, in achieving this longevity.

Roberts Temple is best known as being the place of worship of Mamie Till-Mobley, a grieving mother who held an open-casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till, at the church after he was abducted, tortured, and lynched by a group of white men while visiting family members in Mississippi in August 1955. Till, a young Black Chicagoan with a full life ahead of him, was 14-years-old at the time of his murder. The funeral, attended by tens of thousands of mourners, attracted widespread national attention and served as a watershed moment in the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs of the funeral—including the body of Till, which Till-Mobley wanted on full display so that the world could witness the sheer brutality of her son’s death—are among the most indelible in American history.

In the weeks and months following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, renewed attention has been paid to Till and his legacy as well as the South Side church that gave way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the murders of Till and Floyd took place in different cities and different eras, and under different but just as senseless circumstances, both proved catalytic events in the ongoing fight for racial justice.

“The Roberts Temple Church is both extraordinarily and heartbreakingly important to Chicago, our state, and to our country’s history,” said Duckworth in a statement. “It’s time we recognize how historic sites can not only teach us about our history—but provoke us to build a more just future. By designating this church a historic site, we will help ensure that this awful chapter is not erased and that generations of Americans to come can show respect to Mamie and Emmett’s stories.”

Duckworth’s bill, the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley, and Roberts Temple National Historic Site Act, is co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

According to a press release from the National Trust, the organization has been at work providing support to Roberts Temple via grants, technical assistance, and advocacy efforts, such as inclusion on last year’s 11 Most Endangered list, that it hoped would ultimately lead to federal protection, and it appears likely that it has. To carry out this work, the National Trust partnered with the Till and Roberts families, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the National Parks Conservation Association, Latham & Watkins LLP, and others.

Last month, it was announced that the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi, was the recipient of a $691,750 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project initiative, first launched in October 2020. The funds will go toward operational funding enabling the museum to continue its “racial healing efforts” including historic preservation, community building initiatives across the Mississippi Delta, and “a year-long strategic planning process to coordinate the preservation of the Mamie and Emmett Till story across the Mississippi Delta and in Chicago,” per the Mellon Foundation.

Earlier this year, Till’s childhood home in Chicago’s West Woodlawn section was designated as an official city landmark following a hard-fought push from local preservationists and family members. The ongoing effort to landmark the at-risk “two-flat” gained increased urgency last summer as the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder approached and hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets in the midst of a global pandemic, calling for an end to social injustice, structural racism, and acts of violence perpetrated against African Americans by law enforcement.