City Council urged to grant Emmett Till home landmark status before Black History Month
Representing the final hurdle before a vote by the City Council, the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on Tuesday approved an ordinance granting landmark status by February to the childhood home of Emmett Till, the teen whose 1955 lynching sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Having overcome all other hurdles, the Woodlawn home where Emmett Till lived before that fateful trip Down South could become a city landmark just in time for Black History Month.
The Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on Tuesday approved an ordinance officially granting that designation for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley House, 6427 S St. Lawrence Ave. in West Woodlawn — forwarding it on to the City Council a day before the council’s monthly meeting Wednesday.
The ordinance typically would not be heard until the next meeting, at the very least.
But that would be Feb. 24 — four days before the end of our national month to acknowledge Black history, in all of its trauma as well as its richness.
“We at Preservation Chicago are so proud to have worked with the Till family and the community to have this building become a landmark, as it’s so very noteworthy, and important to so many of us,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, which spearheaded the years-long effort to save the brick two-flat.
“We want to encourage the City Council to move on this designation and make it a landmark tomorrow. This should have been done 50 years ago,” he said.
Last year was the 65th anniversary of the murder of the 14-year-old whose lynching lit fire to the Civil Rights Movement.
In a visit to family in Money, Mississippi, Till 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’m so grateful the Zoning Committee took up the ordinance expeditiously and gave approval,” said Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Blacks in Green, which purchased the building on Oct. 6, for conversion into a museum.
“The only thing that could make us more elated is if a miracle could get it to the floor of the council tomorrow. Black History Month starts Monday, and the next meeting is at February end,” she said. “We need a Hail Mary in the City Council so that we can celebrate next month a dream come true — that a murder could become a movement and now a museum.”
In August 1955, Till and his mother had occupied one floor, with other family in other units.
The 2,308-square-foot home built in 1895 is among sites related to the gruesome chapter in American history that many worked decades to preserve, in Chicago and Mississippi.
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville was designated a city landmark in 2006. It’s where Till’s historic open casket funeral was held Sept. 3, 1955 — his mother’s decision to show the world the face of racism, sparking international outrage.
Roberts Temple made the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in September. But the home of the youth born in 1941 at Cook County Hospital had remained at risk of deterioration or demolition after previous landmark efforts failed.
“I’m here to recommend on behalf of the Chicago Landmarks Commission that the Emmett and Mamie Till-Mobley House be designated a landmark,” said Matt Crawford, of the Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Division.
“It was from this house that Emmett Till left with his uncle to visit relatives in Mississippi. The tragic murder became a symbol of the brutality of racism in America. Three months after acquittal of his murderers, Rosa Parks cited the murder for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus,” recounted Crawford.
“Soon after, a young and relatively unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr. called for a citywide bus boycott. And the Civil Rights Movement in America was born.”
Landmark status, long pushed by the Till family, would protect the property from demolition or changes to the exterior.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) suggested the city assist with preservation. Crawford said the city is prepared to do so, already working with the nonprofit to secure an adjacent vacant lot.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) suggested the city pursue getting the building entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. Crawford agreed to do so, and additionally pursue National Historic Landmark designation.
Blacks In Green promotes the design and development of green, self-sustaining, mixed-income Black communities and land stewardship. The nonprofit, which has set a fundraising goal of $11 million, purchased the property for $180,000. Previous owner Blake McCreight of BMW Properties had bought it for $107,000 a year earlier.
“Our goal is to lift up the story of the Great Migration, which is so little told, through the icon of the Till-Mobley House. The narrative about Black people is so evil. This museum comes at a moment in America when we must redefine the narrative,” Davis said.