This July, Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley are commemorated with national monuments, landmarks, and art

History in the Making

This July, Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley are commemorated with national monuments, landmarks, and art

Germane Barnes installation at the Till family home on Chicago’s South Side (Nina Johnson)

On July 25, the Biden administration made a historic announcement 68 years in the making. Last Tuesday, civil rights leaders joined the president to declare the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. The National Park Service has designated three sites in Mississippi and Illinois as national monuments to commemorate Emmett Till, a 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who passed in 2003 after spending her life seeking justice for her son and Black civil rights more broadly.

Last Tuesday, Erica L. Green reported in the New York Times that Mamie Till-Mobley sent letters pleading with President Eisenhower to take action against Roy Bryant and John Milam, the two white men who murdered her son acquitted by an all-white jury, impassioned calls which “Ike” never bothered replying to. But after 68 long years, Washington has finally answered.

The July 25 announcement stated that two sites in Mississippi will be designated as national monuments: Graball Landing, the site in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi where Emmett’s body was pulled from the river; and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi where Emmett’s murderers evaded justice. The third site will be Roberts Temple on Chicago’s South Side where Mamie Till-Mobley held an open-casket funeral for her son so the world could see what had happened in Mississippi. Over 100,000 people attended the funeral, an event which Reverend Jesse Jackson later called a “big bang” moment for Black civil rights in the United States. 

Roberts Temple Church of God in Bronzeville Chicago
Located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ is where Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral was held. (NPCA Photos/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

According to Jonathan Solomon of Preservation Futures, a Chicago preservation group formed alongside his cofounder Elizabeth Blasius, the new designation “opens up each site for funding and management support” from the federal government to ensure that generations to come will know the Till family’s story. “A national monument is the highest level of recognition that individual architectural properties can get, the equivalent of a national park,” Solomon told AN. Solomon noted that other sites designated by the National Park Service (NPS) as national monuments include the home of Myrlie Evers-Williams and her husband Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader from Mississippi who was lynched in 1963. 

The 2023 decision to create a national monument commemorating the Till family “comes after years of advocacy and research by the Till family, as well as regional and local nonprofits involved in preservation advocacy,” Solomon said. Through their work at Preservation Futures, Blasius and Solomon wrote the National Statement of Significance for the Till site, a necessary step in achieving national monument status. “When we were asked to write the letter, we felt that it was very important for us to foreground accounts from people who were closest to Emmett and Mamie so that they could relay direct experiences,” Solomon said. “Our telling was filled with firsthand accounts of people with close associations to the Till family.”

To date, Preservation Futures has also led efforts to landmark the Till family home, also on Chicago’s South Side; a site not included in the Biden administration’s announcement. In 2020, the nonprofit Blacks in Green, a Black-led economic development group, fought to preserve the home in Woodlawn after years of neglect. The two-story Victorian home was landmarked a year later in 2021 after approval by the Chicago city council. In the months that followed, Blacks in Green and Preservation Futures worked to raise money to maintain it, successfully gathering $250,000 to pay for “tuckpointing, roof work and stabilizing the exterior,” Solomon said. Chicago firm Bauer Latoza was the architect of record on the rehabilitation. 

Exterior View of Emmett Till's house in South Side Chicago
Pre-renovation: The South Side home where Emmett Till lived with his mother and family before he was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. (Charles Orlowek/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Additionally, to celebrate what would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, an installation entitled Be Careful, I Always Am by architect and educator Germane Barnes recently opened in the Till family home’s garden, which is set to stay open until October. The public art installation features scaffolding clad in colorful textiles with text designed by Barnes climbing up the home’s brick exterior wall.

Exterior view of Tallahatchie County Courthouse
The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi where the trial for Emmett Till’s murder was held and where his killers went free after only 67 minutes of jury deliberations. (NPCA Photos/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Today, Barnes lives and teaches in Miami, where he runs his firm Studio Barnes, but grew up in West Side Chicago. To date, Barnes has worked on several important cultural projects in his hometown, including an installation in the most recent Chicago Architecture Biennial. “You would never expect this to happen to a child. You want a kid to be brave, but you also have to shield them and that’s why it’s around a large scaffold structure — [to] shield and [build] structure around them,” Barnes told local Chicago reporters upon his installation’s opening.

Germaine Barnes installation at Till family home in South Side Chicago
(Nina Johnson)

“Germane has done amazing work on the architecture and culture of the Great Migration already, so he was a natural choice as a creative voice to begin that process,” Solomon said. “The real challenge of the future [Till] museum will be interpreting the history for a new audience and making it relevant to them, and how to make it more than a sensationalization of brutality and trauma” Solomon continued. “The brutality and violence of Emmett’s death is indeed part of the story, but so is the vibrance, freedom, and joy of his life.”