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Emmett Till’s home, a launching pad for the civil rights movement, deserves landmark status

Landmark status would further honor Emmett and Mamie Till’s tragic but critical role in American history.

Former home of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till, 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
The Chicago home where Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till, lived at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A humble 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 beat 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.

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