Emmett Till’s home, a launching pad for civil rights movement, deserves landmark status
Ahumble two-flat at 64th and St. Lawrence played a central role in one of the most important moments in U.S. history — and there’s an effort to keep it from being lost before most people even realize it’s there.
Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan whose 1955 murder at the hands of Mississippi racists sent shockwaves around the world, lived on the second floor of 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., with his mother, Mamie, at the time of his death.
Last Thursday marked the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder, and now Till’s family and architectural preservationists are renewing a push to win city landmark status for the building, citing its link to history.
Their work could pay off this week. On Thursday, the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks will decide whether to grant the building preliminary landmark status.
We urge the commission to vote in favor of the Till home. Landmark status would further honor Emmett and Mamie Till’s tragic but critical role in 20th century America. And given that the building has fallen into disrepair, landmarking would help protect the two-flat from demolition or ham-fisted renovation attempts.
This building must be saved and put back into action. And to make that happen, the city must throw its protective arms around it.
‘What they did to my baby’
Till was lynched on Aug. 28, 1955, while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, following some kind of alleged verbal interaction with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a store she owned. The details of the exchange, if it occurred at all, remain sketchy to this day.
Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his brother J.W. Milam were acquitted of Till’s murder. But in a Look magazine article published after the trial, the men confessed they had kidnapped, tortured and beaten Till, then shot him before dumping his body in the murky Tallahatchie River. The men tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around the boy’s neck to weigh him down.
After the body was found, Mamie Till made the extraordinary and historic decision to keep Till’s coffin open during his funeral.
About 50,000 people attended the ceremony. The harrowing photos of Till’s mutilated body — seen around the world — further exposed the brutality of American racism and galvanized the civil rights movement.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” Mamie Till said then.
‘Absolutely deserving’ of landmark status
The Till residence is falling apart, to put it bluntly. It’s been in Building Court for at least the past 19 years, cited for everything from plumbing violations to a crumbling exterior.
There are no exterior markers indicating the home’s history.
A 2017 effort to win landmark status for the house failed. The non-profit group Preservation Chicago is working with the Till family — which no longer owns or resides in the building — on a new attempt to get the structure landmarked.
As Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika reported last week, the organization filed a landmark proposal for the building last week with the city’s Department of Planning.
That request will be in front of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday. Approval would give the building full landmark protection for a year while the commission and city staff determine if it should recommend that the City Council grant the honor permanently.
“It’s more pertinent than ever that it be landmarked, as it’s now extremely vulnerable,” says Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller.
“This home represents the legacy carried on by Till’s mother and family,” Miller added. “It should be a site of pilgrimage.”
“That home in Woodlawn is history,” said Ollie Gordon, 72, a Till cousin who lived in the building with other family members in 1955. “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.”
As City Hall helps guide redevelopment to the Woodlawn community, it has a duty to make sure the community’s history is not erased.
Saving the Till home is an important stand the city must take, just as it did a decade ago when officials landmarked a brick three-flat just four blocks away at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave. that was the childhood home of playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
History has shown that a ragged vacant building on the South or West sides is inherently at high risk. Buildings there deserve a far better fate.
Especially this one.
More than 20 years ago, I received a call from Cook County Judge Will Gierach asking me to meet him in his chambers. He had founded one of the most successful municipal law firms in the south suburbs and went on to become a criminal court judge in Markham. Newspaper accounts said he began each day by reading his Bible and writings from a book called “101 Famous Poems.”
He routinely set bail at $100,000 in cases involving just the illegal possession of a handgun.
He was a tough, wise, very traditional man of justice.
Anyway, as I sat in the judge’s chambers, he announced he had something important he wanted to say as he neared retirement.
When President Dwight Eisenhower was leaving office, Gierach reminded me, he had issued a warning to the people of the United States about a military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower felt that government employees, politicians, high-ranking members of the military and the defense industry were working together to create a self-generating multi-billion-dollar industry that would continue to grow and grow regardless of need.
I recalled reading about the speech in history class.
Well, Gierach said, the same thing was happening in the area of criminal justice. He had seen it happening for more than 30 years.
Politicians would campaign for greater law enforcement, which would mean more police on the streets, which would mean more arrests and a need for more prosecutors and more courtrooms, and courthouses and jails and prisons and court reporters and prison guards.
Billions and billions of dollars were being spent, we were locking up more and more people, and it was all going to continue on and on because it was a self-generating machine. The monster had to be fed.
This was a long time ago, as I said. I wrote the column. Nobody seemed to take notice.
According to one study I saw recently, there are now 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities and 80 Indian county jails. Millions of people are locked up.
I don’t know how many people are processed through courthouses in the U.S. each day, but I suggest that everyone visit the Cook County
Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California, or the suburban branch courts nearest them around 9:30 a.m., just to witness the flood of humanity flowing through those places each day. That’s after the COVID-19 threat eases, of course.
I mention this now because of the demonstrations demanding an end to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system. No one who has spent much time in a courtroom or visited a jail or prison can deny that. Yet, there is disagreement about what should be done.
Some people think more Black people need to be locked up.
I heard the president’s chief of staff on Sunday suggest the real problem is with looting and shootings by the demonstrators. This is not happening in Trump’s country, he emphasized. The problems are occurring in cities and states run by Democrats, and Donald Trump would be pleased to send in the military to straighten things out, even if those places are not part of his country.
The Democrats, the progressives and the Black Lives Matter folks are living in that segment of the country that was once considered part of the United States, but has been banished due to bad behavior.
Locking people up has not worked. Putting people in prison has not worked. Hiring more police and building more courthouses and prisons has not worked.
So now people, teenagers, are carrying rifles, AR-15s, in the streets and police stand by as people get shot. Police are being pelted with projectiles, shot at and insulted.
Police are sometimes sitting on the necks of civilians until they die or shooting them multiple times. There is chaos.
Send in the troops! Let the military industrial complex finally meet up with the criminal justice complex. It seem inevitable. Welcome to Trump’s country.
The former home of Emmett and Mamie Till at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. in West Woodlawn.
Cook County Jail