July 25, 2023

Emmett Till National Monument Will Include Chicago Church That Hosted Teen’s Funeral

President Joe Biden is expected to designate Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ a monument Tuesday, on the anniversary of Till's birth.

Source: Block Club Chicago


Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, the site of Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral, will be included in a national monument set to be created by President Joe Biden on the anniversary of Till’s birth.

Roberts Temple Church, 4021 S. State St., will be preserved as part of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, according to the Associated Press. Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan, was lynched by white supremacists in Mississippi nearly 70 years ago.

Two sites in Mississippi — Graball Landing near Glendora, where Till’s body was discovered after being dumped in the Tallahatchie River, and the courthouse in Sumner where a jury of white men acquitted Till’s killers — will also be included in the monument.

Biden is expected to sign a proclamation creating the monument Tuesday. The announcement is “an overdue national recognition” of Till’s life and of Till-Mobley’s work to build her son’s legacy, Till’s loved ones, historians and preservationists said Monday.

“This national monument designation makes certain that Emmett Till’s life and legacy, along with his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s social action and impact, will live on and be used to inspire others to create a more just and equitable society,” said Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., Till’s cousin and the last living person who witnessed Till’s kidnapping.

The Till national monument will unlock federal resources for upkeep, renovations and staffing at Roberts Temple Church, said Elizabeth Blasius, an architectural historian and co-founder of local nonprofit Preservation Futures.

“Roberts Temple will remain owned by the church, which I think is really wonderful because it’s an active house of worship,” Blasius said.

On Aug. 20, 1955, Till left the Englewood train station on 63rd Street to visit his family in Mississippi. Till visited a general store owned by Roy Bryant in Money, Mississippi, on Aug. 24, where Bryant’s wif,e Carolyn Bryant, accused Till of whistling at her.

Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till in the early morning on Aug. 28, 1955, before shooting him in the head and throwing his body in the Tallahatchie River. His body was pulled from the river near Graball Landing on Aug. 31, 1955.

Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider — an open racist who was the first local official to hear about the discovery of Till’s body — pressured Till’s family to bury him immediately.

Till-Mobley’s refusal, and her decision to instead display her son’s brutalized body at an open-casket funeral, is credited as a springboard for the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s.

Till-Mobley chose to hold the public funeral at Roberts Temple Church, which was Chicago’s first Church of God in Christ and is considered the denomination’s “Mother Church” in northern Illinois, according to a 2005 city report.

The funeral, held on Sept. 3, 1955, drew 2,000 mourners inside the Bronzeville church, with thousands more gathering outside. Bishop Isaiah Roberts, son of church founder William Roberts, presided over the ceremony as Bishop Louis Henry Ford eulogized Till.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have viewed Till’s body over the next three days before he was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip.

Bryant and Milam went to trial on murder charges at the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse on Sept. 19, 1955. Within days, an all-white jury acquitted them. A grand jury declined to indict the killers on lesser charges later that year.

Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Till in a 1956 article and were paid a reported $4,000 for their story. A 1955 warrant for Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant, was never served; juries declined to indict her in 2007 and 2022. She died in April at 88.

Preservation Futures wrote and researched a “national statement of significance” about the church for the Biden administration before the Till monument’s creation.

Researchers relied on interviews with surviving funeral attendees, media coverage of the funeral and details about the building’s condition in 1955 to draft the report, among other sources.

Even as the neighborhood around the church has lost density and resources in the decades since Till’s funeral, its members continue worshipping on State Street while raising awareness and funds needed to preserve their 101-year-old building.

The congregation should celebrate its “constant” presence in Bronzeville, as that presence played a major role in establishing the Till monument in Chicago, Blasius said.

“We should be very grateful for the Roberts Temple COGIC faith community in their decades and decades of stewardship, because it’s really because of those decades of stewardship that the building even still exists,” she said.

A Roberts Temple Church member referred Block Club to the National Park Service for comment, but parks officials did not respond.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin sponsored a 2021 bill that would have named Roberts Temple Church its own national monument. That bill stalled in the Senate before Duckworth reintroduced it this year.

“Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ is of both extraordinary and incredibly heartbreaking historical importance to Chicago, our state and to this country,” Duckworth said Monday.

The Till monument’s creation is important as right-wingers attempt “to whitewash our nation’s history and erase the devastating legacies of slavery and lynchings on Black Americans,” she said.

The Till national monument will be Chicago’s second, after the Pullman monument opened to the public in 2021. Pullman has since been upgraded to a national historical park.

Roberts Temple Church was named a Chicago Landmark in 2006. In addition to hosting Till’s funeral, the church was where gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the “godmother of rock and roll,” started her musical career.

The church is within the boundaries of the Bronzeville–Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, which was created last year. National heritage areas receive up to $10 million in federal funding over 15 years to preserve the area’s history, create jobs and generate revenue.

Tuesday’s announcement of the national monument coincides with the 82nd anniversary of Till’s birth. Chicagoans celebrated Till’s birthday Sunday with an ice cream social and art exhibition at his family’s landmarked home in West Woodlawn.

Nonprofit Blacks in Green is renovating the home, 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., into a museum, garden and community performance theater set to open in 2025.

By:  Maxwell Evans