A years-long journey to honor a 14-year-old child brutally murdered by racism has ended.
It was a journey to acknowledge Emmett Till, and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, whose selfless decision to show the world what racism looks like sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
The City Council on Wednesday passed an ordinance landmarking Till’s childhood home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. in West Woodlawn, where he’d lived before that fateful trip Down South in August 1955, that ended with his body being pulled from the Tallahatchie River.
Preservationists and the Till family won their battle just in time for Black History Month.
“Achieving Landmark status for the Till-Mobley House is an important step in recognizing that Black cultural heritage sites long overlooked by the city are a vital part of Chicago’s past, present and future,” said Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of the building’s nonprofit owner, Blacks in Green, which plans to convert the brick two-flat into a museum.
“Emmett Till’s tragic murder is a part of Chicago and America’s Great Migration story that needs to be remembered and retold for generations to come,” said Davis.
The building, at risk of deterioration or demolition after failure of previous landmark efforts, had been purchased in 2019 by a developer unaware of its history. Blacks In Green bought the 125-year-old building from Blake McCreight of BMW Properties in October.
It’s where Till and his mother lived in August 1955, on the second floor, with other aunts and uncles in the first-floor and basement units. He left there for a train trip to visit family in Money, Mississippi, where he was kidnapped by white men from his uncle’s home on Aug. 28, 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman at a grocery store.
Till’s body was recovered on Aug. 31, 1955, barbed wire wrapped around his neck, face beaten beyond recognition, his body weighted down in the river with a cotton gin fan.
“A lot of times, African-American history is forgotten. Before there was Trayvon Martin, before there was Eric Garner, there was Emmett Till,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), when the ordinance was brought up for vote. The building is in her ward.
“We still have a real problem in this country not addressing the brutality that has happened to Black folks, but also making sure we apologize and recognize it, and do things to move forward,” Taylor said. “So I’m excited that the Emmett Till home is going to be preserved. We will repeat history if we don’t address it and have those very hard conversations.”
The lynching of the 14-year-old — whose confessed murderers were acquitted at trial — lit a fire under the Civil Rights Movement. It was cited by Rosa Parks in her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in December 1955, triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
That boycott would be led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in a famed 1963 sermon, evoked “the crying voice of a little Emmett C. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi.”
It was Preservation Chicago that spearheaded the years-long effort to save the building, and its director of community engagement, Mary Lu Seidel, who had immersed herself in Till’s life to draft all supportive documentation undergirding the ordinance, cried when Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “Hearing no objections, so ordered,” and the ordinance passed.
Another behind-the-scenes player in the effort was Jonathan Solomon, director of the department of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago.
After Tuesday’s approval by the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, supporters had pushed the council not to wait until its Feb. 24 meeting to take up the ordinance. And the council acquiesced. The ordinance was among items added in an addendum to the Council’s meeting agenda.
“Preservation Chicago is elated. This is a remarkable day, a day of celebration as we enter Black History Month,” said Ward Miller, the group’s executive director.
“We were honored to help in recognizing this home as a landmark, pushing for its designation for so many years. We are humbled by the experience. This site of reverence and remembrance will continue to endure long into the future,” he said.
Blacks In Green, which promotes the design and development of green, self-sustaining, mixed-income Black communities and land stewardship, has launched an $11 million fundraising campaign for what will be called “The Till-Mobley Great Migration Museum, Garden and Theater.” It is working to secure an adjacent lot to expand the campus.
In December 2019, the nonprofit purchased a nearby parcel at 6354 S. St. Lawrence Ave. and established the Mamie Till-Mobley Forgiveness Garden.
Forgiveness, after all, begins with acknowledgement.