How Mississippi historians are preserving Emmett Till’s and Mamie Till-Mobley’s story

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Herman Johnson Jr., director of the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History stands in an exhibit honoring Mississippi sports legends in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023.

Herman Johnson Jr., director of the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History stands in an exhibit honoring Mississippi sports legends in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023. The museum is packed with artifacts telling the stories of Black Mississippians — objects that tell a story of trauma and triumph.

Rashah McChesney, Gulf States Newsroom

In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley traveled to Sumner, Mississippi for the trial of the two men who murdered her son, Emmett Till. But instead of staying in Sumner during the hearing, she instead sought refuge in nearby Mound Bayou.

The small Delta town — one of the first in Mississippi established by formerly enslaved people — became a haven for those making their way North. For Till-Mobley, it was a place where she could find protection from the violence in the Jim Crow South while she sought justice for her son. 

The two white men were later acquitted of murder, but Till-Mobley’s defiance of those in power gave strength to the Civil Rights Movement. 

(from left) A large photo of Walter Reed, Willie Reed, Mamie Till-Mobley, Charles Diggs, Dr. T.R.M. Howard and Amanda Bradley at the trial for Emmett Till’s murder stands inside of the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
(from left) A large photo of Walter Reed, Willie Reed, Mamie Till-Mobley, Charles Diggs, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, and Amanda Bradley at the trial for Emmett Till’s murder stands inside of the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The museum’s current exhibit about the family and their influence on Black culture and history includes furniture and props from movies about the Till family. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed a declaration making three historic sites — two in Mississippi and one in Chicago — into a national monument for Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley. The two sites in Mississippi include Graball Landing, where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse, which was previously restored to what it would have looked like during the trial for Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. 

The Biden declaration also directs the National Parks Service to develop a plan with local communities, organizations, and the public to support the interpretation and preservation of other key sites in Mississippi that help tell the story of Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley — including Mound Bayou. 

The recognition of Mound Bayou is a welcome addition for Rev. Darryl Johnson, former mayor of Mound Bayou and a founding member of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance

The Johnson family has been in Mound Bayou for at least four generations. Darryl Johnson knew of the town’s rich history of Black progress and activism, but he said he didn’t see it reflected in his education.

“I looked and looked in that book and didn’t find but two sentences that had Mound Bayou in it,” Darryl Johnson said. “So at eighth grade, that’s when I decided, if it’s going to be told, we’re going to have to be the one to tell it, ‘cause I couldn’t figure out who else could.”

Hermon Johnson Sr., 94, looks around at the exhibits in the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023.
Hermon Johnson Sr., 94, looks around at the exhibits in the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023. The museum in Mound Bayou documents Black culture, including the life and death of Emmett Till. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

Through the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and Heritage, the Johnson family is curating an exhibit on Emmett Till’s murder, Mamie Till-Mobley’s activism and of the history of Black culture in the South. The museum has also built one of the few collections in the state dedicated to the violence of racism and the triumphs in the community. 

The exhibits at the museum can be jarring. There are hundred-year-old Jim Crow caricatures, and a confederate flag leaning on a Ku Klux Klan robe. One section is full of framed memes depicting former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle as apes. But alongside the racist imagery, the museum also highlights biographies of famous Black men and women and traditional African art. During a museum tour, Darryl Johnson points out the juxtaposition — highlighting a portrait of men and women attending the 1937 National Baptist Convention sitting above another portrait of a man hanging from a tree. 

A photo from a show about the murder of Emmett Till sits on a bed at the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023.
A photo from a show about the murder of Emmett Till sits on a bed at the Mound Bayou Museum of African American Culture and History in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, on July 19, 2023. The museum has curated an exhibit about the life and death of Emmett Till and the activism of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

Hermon Johnson Jr., Darryl’s brother and the director of the museum, said that visitors interpret the exhibit through their own lived experiences, and often, they will share their memories. 

“We hear stories that you probably won’t get other places because they come in here and they tell us their reflection on what happened with them during that time, or what their parents told them during that time,” Hermon Johnson Jr. said. 

The Johnsons’ museum is just one example of the work local communities have done to keep Emmett Till’s and Mamie Till-Mobley’s story alive. 

In nearby Sumner, students in the Mississippi Delta Filmmakers Project are also exploring the racism and hatred in the rural South that led to Emmett Till’s murder. The students travel across the Delta with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, retracing his last steps and ending in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse where the trial took place.

A group of students work on a documentary about their experiences learning about the life and death of Emmett Till at the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, on July 20, 2023.
A group of students work on a documentary about their experiences learning about the life and death of Emmett Till at the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, on July 20, 2023. The courthouse — where Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury — is one of the sites in a new national monument dedicated to Emmett and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

Kennedy Williams is a 16-year-old high school student from Phillip, Mississippi, a town close to Money, where Till was visiting that summer. Growing up in the area,  she knew Emmett Till’s story, but it’s different to physically be where it took place – like in front of the grocery store where he was accused of whistling at a white woman, or inside of the seed barn where he was tortured. 

“It kind of puts you in a new perspective or in a new light about things,” Williams said. “Like, ‘Oh, I live right across from this place.’ It wasn’t even like 10 or 15 miles from me. It was about two blocks.”

Williams is one of about 20 students working on a short film about what they’ve learned. She said her generation must be more present and aware of their history, even if it’s painful.

“You should always see where you should go back to, and you should always see the sites of where people made change for you and where people opened the doors for you,” she said.

A seed barn where 14-year-old Emmett Till is believed to have been tortured and killed stands on private property near Drew, Mississippi, on July 20, 2023.
A seed barn where 14-year-old Emmett Till is believed to have been tortured and killed stands on private property near Drew, Mississippi, on July 20, 2023. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center has multiple initiatives to foster racial reconciliation and is housed right across the street from the Tallahatchie County Courthouse. Benjamin Saulsberry, the center’s education director, said a Till National Park could encourage visitors to think more critically about the role they have in dismantling racist systems.

“My hope is 70 years down the road, we can ask ourselves, why were we so little? Why were we so small in our thinking and our valuing of one another? Why are we so willing to take for granted the brevity of life? And as such, why would we allow for an environment and a system that would perpetuate or sometimes reward the dehumanization of people?”

Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources with the National Parks Conservation Association, has been a part of the efforts to create the national monument since 2018. He said he hopes having a monument will both reveal the truth of what happened to Till and allow visitors to dig deeper into their humanity. 

“Maybe we could use this history and these experiences to just make ourselves smarter and more empathetic,” Spears said. “I’m looking for us to be smarter and better and more capable of being human and adhering to the better angels of our nature.”

Emmett Till Interpretive Center Education Director Benjamin Saulsberry and National Parks Conservation Association Senior Director of Cultural Resources Alan Spears stand on the banks of the Tallahatchie River — the approximate location of where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Mississippi.
Emmett Till Interpretive Center Education Director Benjamin Saulsberry and National Parks Conservation Association Senior Director of Cultural Resources Alan Spears stand on the banks of the Tallahatchie River — the approximate location of where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Mississippi. Till was a Black teen kidnapped, tortured and killed by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

 

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