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

Preservationists and the family of Emmett Till are urging landmark status for the Woodlawn home where the teen lived before a visit to family Down South ended with his brutal lynching on Aug. 28, 1955 — for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The home has many building code violations, has changed hands several times in recent years and now is believed to be vacant.

Preservationists are leading renewed efforts to save the two-flat where Emmett Till spent the last years of his life before leaving on that fateful train trip Down South on Aug. 20, 1955.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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 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 and 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 home where Till lived 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, which is 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 Emmett Till’s cousin and today the last living witness to the horrific events of 1955.
AP file photo

“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 Emmett Till’s cousin and today the last living witness to the horrific events of 1955.

Then 16, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. 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 Emmett found out Wheeler was going Down South with his great-uncle, Emmett wanted to go,” said McCain Parker, a village trustee in Summit.

“People always say it was Emmett who was going Down South, and Wheeler 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.

Emmett 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, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (L-R) U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Gordon-Taylor, Gordon and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
Provided photo.

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.”