65 years af­ter mur­der, his fam­ily urges land­mark sta­tus for Wood­lawn home


As the na­tion com­mem­o­rates the 65th an­niver­sary of the mur­der of Em­mett Till — the 14-year-old Chicagoan whose lynch­ing lit fire to the Civil Rights Move­ment — one can virtually tour all the his­toric sites cen­tral to this grue­some chap­ter in Amer­i­can racism.

The tour is found on the Em­mett Till Mem­ory Project, a down­load­able app launched on the 64th an­niver­sary of the sem­i­nal event — to en­able thought­ful en­gage­ment with Till’s story.

In a visit to fam­ily in Money, Mis­sis­sippi, the teen was kid­napped from his un­cle’s home on Aug. 28, 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman at a gro­cery store. His body was re­cov­ered on Aug. 31, 1955, from the Tal­la­hatchie River, barbed wire wrapped around his neck, face beaten be­yond recog­ni­tion, his body weighted down with a cot­ton gin fan.

“I re­mem­ber that as he left, his mother was telling him how to be­have around white peo­ple. I re­mem­ber days later, Mrs. Mob­ley sud­denly get­ting sick and tak­ing to her bed, feel­ing so weak she couldn’t even stand up — for no ap­par­ent rea­son. It was a mother’s in­tu­ition,” said Till fam­ily mem­ber Ol­lie

Gordon, 72, of Rob­bins. She is a cousin to Till, an only child.

In Au­gust 1955, Gordon lived in the brick two-flat build­ing in Wood­lawn where Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mob­ley, oc­cu­pied the sec­ond floor, an­other aunt and un­cle the first floor, and 7-year-old Gordon, her par­ents and four sib­lings, the base­ment unit.

“I re­mem­ber when we got the call that he was miss­ing. I re­mem­ber for those three days, it was just chaos in the home,” said the re­tired Chicago Pub­lic Schools teacher.

“The fam­ily was very re­li­gious, Pen­te­costal, so lots of pray­ing, lots of phone calls com­ing in. And I re­mem­ber my mother had a dis­cern­ment — she had a gift of see­ing things — and she started to cry. She just kept say­ing, ‘I see muddy wa­ter. I see muddy wa­ter.’ And of course the next day, they called to say he had been pulled out of the Tal­la­hatchie River — muddy wa­ter. Then there was just lots of scream­ing and cry­ing.”

The 2,308-square-foot home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. where Till spent the last years of his life is part of the app’s na­tional tour, funded by the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties and the In­sti­tute of Mu­seum & Library Ser­vices.

The ma­jor­ity of 22 sites are in Mis­sis­sippi, where groups like the Em­mett Till Me­mo­rial Com­mis­sion in Tal­la­hatchie County have worked hard to en­sure com­mem­o­ra­tion/ preser­va­tion of the most sig­nif­i­cant sites.

Five sites are in the Chicago area, two in the city. The other is Roberts Tem­ple Church of God In Christ in Bronzevill­e,

where Till’s his­toric open cas­ket funeral was held on Sept. 3, 1955 — draw­ing 100,000 peo­ple to pay their re­spects, af­ter in­ter­na­tional out­rage sparked by Till-Mob­ley’s de­ci­sion to show the world the face of racism.

Roberts Tem­ple was des­ig­nated a Chicago land­mark in 2006. But the two-flat where Till spent the last years of his life be­fore leav­ing on that fate­ful train trip Down South on Aug. 20, 1955, re­mains at risk of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion or de­mo­li­tion af­ter fail­ure of pre­vi­ous land­mark ef­forts, most re­cently in 2017.

The city has not as­cribed to any ur­gency on pre­serv­ing the home, which has been plas­tered with city De­part­ment of Build­ings code vi­o­la­tions in re­cent years while chang­ing hands sev­eral times. With the build­ing’s last re­main­ing ten­ant serv­ing no­tice he was mov­ing last month, preser­va­tion­ists and Till fam­ily mem­bers say preser­va­tion must take on an ur­gency.

“There was only one ten­ant liv­ing in the sec­ond-floor apart­ment — the Till-Mob­ley apart­ment. They said they were mov­ing out be­cause there were is­sues with the build­ing pipes burst­ing in the base­ment and what­not. This build­ing is likely now va­cant,” said Ward Miller, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Preser­va­tion Chicago, lead­ing re­newed ef­forts to save it.

“It’s more per­ti­nent than ever that it be land­marked, as it’s now ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble,” he said.

“We’ve been very sen­si­tive about this build­ing, en­gag­ing for the past year in con­ver­sa­tions with the Till fam­ily to re­quest their per­mis­sion, even though they’re no longer af­fil­i­ated with the build­ing. This home rep­re­sents the legacy car­ried on by Till’s mother and fam­ily. It should be a site of pil­grim­age.”

Preser­va­tion Chicago filed a land­mark pro­posal for the prop­erty Mon­day with the city De­part­ment of Plan­ning & De­vel­op­ment. With ap­proval, that de­part­ment would sub­mit the re­quest be­fore the Chicago Com­mis­sion on Land­marks.

Des­ig­na­tion would pre­vent any de­mo­li­tion or changes to the orig­i­nal ex­te­rior.

Till’s fam­ily has worked dili­gently to pre­serve the legacy of the teen whom the late John Lewis de­scribed in his posthu­mously pub­lished es­say as “my Ge­orge Floyd.” Till’s mother worked against racial in­jus­tice up un­til her Jan. 6, 2003, death. And Till’s many cousins have picked up the man­tle.

“Our ef­forts are broad in terms of try­ing to memo­ri­al­ize Em­mett and make sure his legacy is not for­got­ten,” said Dr. Marvel Mc­Cain Parker, 74, of Sum­mit, the wife of the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., 81, who is Till’s cousin and to­day the last liv­ing wit­ness to the hor­rific events of 1955.

Then 16, the Rev. Parker had ac­com­pa­nied Till on the train from Chicago, was with him at the gro­cery store, and in the home that night when Till was ab­ducted at gun­point by white men. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were ac­quit­ted at trial of mur­der­ing Till, and decades later Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant Don­ham, ad­mit­ted she’d lied and the teen had done noth­ing.

The Rev. Parker is cur­rently work­ing on his mem­oir, “A Few Days: Full of Trou­ble,” ex­pected out by Ran­dom House next year dur­ing Black His­tory Month in Fe­bru­ary.

“When my hus­band’s fam­ily came to Chicago from Mis­sis­sippi in 1947, they moved next door to Mamie Till-Mob­ley and Em­mett in Argo/Sum­mit, where Mamie and Em­mett lived many years be­fore mov­ing to Detroit, then Wood­lawn,” said Mc­Cain Parker.

“But Wheeler and Em­mett were best friends. And by Em­mett be­ing an only child, when­ever Mamie would take him places — the zoo, fish­ing, places like that — she would al­ways take Wheeler with them. So when Wheeler found out Em­mett was go­ing Down South with his great-un­cle, Wheeler wanted to go,” said Mc­Cain Parker, a vil­lage trustee in Sum­mit.

“Peo­ple al­ways say it was Wheeler who was go­ing Down South, and Em­mett who wanted to go. But it was the other way around,” she said.

Mc­Cain Parker and her hus­band have spear­headed ef­forts to com­mem­o­rate Till’s early life in that west sub­urb through a 28-year-old non­profit, the Sum­mit Com­mu­nity Task Force. In 2009, their com­mu­nity cen­ter was re­named the Em­mett Till Me­mo­rial Cen­ter, along with a stretch of 76th Av­enue nearby. The non­profit cur­rently is try­ing to ac­quire the site where Till and his fam­ily lived from 1941 to 1950 — now a va­cant lot — to turn it into a me­mo­rial.

“Of course we are sup­port­ing the ef­forts to land­mark the Wood­lawn home. It’s a sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal site that will for­ever be linked to the start of the Civil Rights Move­ment. It should have been land­marked by now. I don’t know why pre­vi­ous ef­forts failed,” Mc­Cain Parker said.

Dur­ing the 2017 at­tempt, then-20th Ward Ald. Wil­lie Cochran did not sup­port the mea­sure. Now, 20th Ward Ald. Jeanette Tay­lor main­tains she backs the ef­fort and in­tends to write a let­ter of sup­port to the Land­marks Com­mis­sion. Months have passed. She has yet to do so.

Tay­lor says she is sim­ply wait­ing to hear from Till’s fam­ily as to their wishes for the prop­erty.

“I’m all for sup­port­ing preser­va­tion of his­tory in our com­mu­nity, be­cause too of­ten those sto­ries are for­got­ten about or never told,” said Tay­lor. “But I’ve been wait­ing to hear from the fam­ily. I want to make sure that I’m fol­low­ing their wishes and hon­or­ing this legacy. That is the only thing that is stop­ping me from do­ing the let­ter.”

The fam­ily’s wish, say Gordon and Mc­Cain Parker, is that the home be pre­served.

It was on Dec. 1, 1955, 100 days af­ter Till’s mur­der, that Rosa Parks re­fused to give up her seat to a white pas­sen­ger on a Mont­gomery, Alabama, city bus, later say­ing she thought of Till in that mo­ment. That would spark the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

And King, who de­scribed Till’s mur­der as “one of the most bru­tal and in­hu­man crimes of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury” went on to de­liver his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Wash­ing­ton on Aug. 28, 1963 — eight years to the day that Till was mur­dered.

“That home in Wood­lawn is his­tory. That’s the home that Em­mett lived in. That was the home he left to board the train to go to Mis­sis­sippi. It’s his­tory in and of it­self, but it’s also part of the Civil Rights Move­ment, so that home is ab­so­lutely de­serv­ing of his­tor­i­cal sta­tus,” fam­ily mem­ber Gordon said.

“Chicago needs to act. We can’t let ef­forts to pre­serve it fal­ter again.”


For­mer home of Em­mett and Mamie Till at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. in West Wood­lawn, Wed­nes­day.


ABOVE: A street sign in honor of Em­mett Till on the cor­ner of 71st and S. St. Lawrence in Park Manor, Wed­nes­day.


Till cousin Ol­lie Gordon and her daugh­ter Air­icka Gordon-Tay­lor, founder of the Mamie Till-Mob­ley Foun­da­tion, were in­vited to wit­ness the House pass­ing of the Em­mett Till Anti-Lynch­ing Act on Feb. 26 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (From left) U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, U.S. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, Gordon-Tay­lor, Gordon, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.


LEFT: Funeral for Em­mett Till. Mother of Em­mett Till, Mamie Mob­ley, pauses at the cas­ket at A.A. Raynor funeral home.

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