Emmett Till’s Memorial

This weekend, my husband and I went to Emmett Till’s memorial. In 1955, when Emmett Louis Till had just turned fourteen, a group of white men murdered him in Drew, Mississippi. Emmett had come to Mississippi on summer vacation. His cousin, who was his best friend, was returning to the family’s home state, and Emmett wanted to come with him. He left Chicago for his great-uncle’s house. A gang of white men kidnapped Emmett from the house and took him to a barn outside Drew where they tortured and killed him. Following Sunday’s memorial, we were scheduled to process to the barn.

The Memory

When I was in college, I went to Europe on a group tour that took us to a concentration camp. I remember another woman and me standing in a barren dirt-trod area as the rest of the group continued to the “showers.” The woman had taught the holocaust to her elementary students. I don’t know what my excuse was, but I couldn’t go there. The memory kept returning as I packed for our trip to Drew. It made me think, Ellen, sometimes God springs you into action before you have a chance to think things through. For which I am grateful.

The Light in the Night

We spent the night before the memorial in Cleveland, Mississippi. We went onto the roof. This was the sky. My cousin labeled it, “Let there be light.”

The sky before Emmett Till's memorial
The rooftop sky at the Cotton House Hotel on Cotton Row in Cleveland.

The Lament for Emmett Till

The next morning we attended the Memorial Service of Lament, Love, & Empowerment Honoring Emmett Louis Till. The memorial was the first acknowledgment by the city of Drew’s of the child’s lynching. Attendees came from Drew, Little Rock, Jackson, Chicago, the Atlantic Magazine —all over. The Episcopal priest who officiated at my wedding gave a powerful testimony. The Episcopal bishop spoke an apology for our church. It was a moment to be proud of my church.

Where We Went

After the service, we joined the procession to the committal ceremony. A sheriff led us, as if we were a funeral procession. The pockmarked asphalt finally gave way to rough gravel. This is a photo of our destination. If you look to the left behind the white tent, you can see the barn.

Emmett Till's lynching site
The site where Emmett Till was lynched

The Atlantic article cited above makes the barn appear to be off in a lonely field by itself. No. It’s right on this idyllic cypress bayou. According to the article, the barn overlooks a swimming pool.

A cypress bayou at the lynching site
The cypress bayou in front of the barn where Emmett Till was lynched

We were not able to stay for the committal ceremony. I don’t know if folks went into the barn or not. I did not. The cheek-to-jowl of the evil done in the barn and the idyllic setting was almost unprocessable. For all I know, the owner of the house emerged and better explained to everyone how he was able to live beside the barn. In the article, he said he didn’t think about it. He’s lived in Drew most of his life. When he bought the place, he didn’t know the barn was where white men lynched a child. His dad only mentioned it after he’d built his new house.

Mamie Till-Mobley’s Words

I want to end with the words of Emmett Till’s mom. Mrs. Till-Mobley was the one who made the gut-wrenching decision to make the most private of moments—the funeral of her only son—a public proclamation: this is what white hate did to my child. She opened the casket to show his face to America.

Mamie Till-Mobley on the message of Emmett Till's lynching
Words from the mother of Emmett Till

Drew Mississippi, Emmett Till, Honoring Emmett Till, Lament, Lament Love & Empowerment for Emmett Till, love, Lynching of Emmett Till

Comments (14)

  • I don’t believe I could live in that house or even anywhere near. Evil was too close. I don’t believe I could have gone into those “showers”, nor into that barn. Evil was too close. I am much too afraid that ‘evil’ would attach itself to my skin if I got too close. I know it is fear and anxiety. Is that a form of denial? I don’t believe it is. I believe you and I (and many others) have such a strong sense of empathy that we would absorb all the sadness, all the pain, all the generational grieving of those moments.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I’ve wondered, too, about denial. Or being too dramatic. And yet it has happened repeatedly throughout my life. The Muslim speaker at the memorial talked about the electromagnetic fields of our hearts synchronizing when groups of people are gathered. And how we as a group were revising the energy by gathering in love. Perhaps this is the goal: for the living to heal the living. Thank you for “talking” with me about it. <3

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      That’s a high compliment, coming from such a good photographer. Yes, I thought her words were striking, too. It made me want to read her book, of course. 🙂

  • Such a teling story about the guy who lives there not knowing until after his house was built. Sounds like how Germans didn’t know either. And every one’s grandfather was resistance hahaha. On another note, knowing myself, I’m pretty sure I would have gone into the barn and into the showers, knowing that I was safe, but wanting to make a pilgrimage for the sake of the ghosts.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, as with the German “resistance” fighters, it’s been my experience white Southerners are good at re-inventing our histories. Often the facts are true. They’re just overshadowed by other hidden, less flattering truths. Your comment about the ghosts makes me wonder if I would have gone into those spaces if I’d been with a group that was well aware of what was happening?

  • What a pilgrimage to make (is pilgrimage the right word?). How any man can boast about torturing and killing a child is beyond me, but then those white people didn’t think black people were any better than animals, and yet he likely would not have tortured and killed a dog in order to “send a message” to other dogs. And how many of those people considered themselves Christian and God-fearing? Methinks they didn’t fear God enough.

    I don’t know if I would have gone into the showers or the barn. I probably would have if only to etch on my memory the commonness of such an environment and the horrors that were done there. I agree with Luanne, that the guy living next to the barn is suspiciously ignorant. Everyone has a conscience they want to protect, no matter how sullied it is.

    But, to be positive, thank you for sharing this experience so eloquently.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, I kind of thought of it as a pilgrimage. And I agree: the Christian label has been very elastic over the course of history. As to the owner, the Atlantic article hints that the family hears ghostly noises. Which the writer attributes to consciousness of the evil trying to break free from the denial. I think the owner might also be working with the committee to do something to commemorate the site??? I’m not sure, but it’s a metaphor for me with the work I’m doing looking into family history and how little one can know about the ‘acreage’ you own.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience with us. The sky photo is beautiful and hopeful. I love that the service was named “Memorial Service of Lament, Love, & Empowerment Honoring Emmett Louis Till.” The courage and witness of Emmett’s mother remains as powerful over the decades as it must have been in 1955. (That was before I was born, so I can only imagine what it would have been like.)

    Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that the current owner of the property didn’t know its true history until after settling there. I hope that there can be a proper recognition and memorial made there to honor Emmett Till and to condemn racism, violence, and lynching for all time.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, I think it’s hard to entitle such an event, but I think the one they chose encapsulated it. There’s so much we have asked out of those who have moved our country forward through their sacrifices, but a mother having to open the casket of her son so the world could see the injuries done to him–I just have no words for that. And maybe you’re right that the lack of awareness will make participation in reconciliation easier–that’s a good point.<3

  • Wow Ellen, the chill bumps on my arms, which arose as I read your article, will not go away as I try to find words to describe my reactions. Thank you for writing this powerful piece and for sharing it. I’m so glad that you & Tom were able to attend Emmett Till’s memorial, and that you continue to be actively involved in the racism to reconciliation movement.

    • It was really something, Leigh Ann. As soon as Andy said it was happening, I knew I wanted to go. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of it. Hope y’all are doing well!

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