Emmett Till-inspired art installation marks groundbreaking on work to restore his former Woodlawn home

The annual ice cream social to celebrate Emmett Till’s birthday also marked the opening of an interactive art installation, titled “Be Careful, I Always Am,” by Chicago-born artist Germane Barnes.

SHARE Emmett Till-inspired art installation marks groundbreaking on work to restore his former Woodlawn home
Artist Germane Barnes stands in front in is installation “Be Careful, I Always Am” at the Emmett & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre located at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue in the West Woodlawn during a celebration event honoring Emmett Till’s birthday, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Artist Germane Barnes stands in front of his installation “Be Careful, I Always Am” at the future site of the Emmett & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre in Woodlawn. Barnes recreates a timeline of Till’s life through hanging vinyl sheets, some with quotes from his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For a second year, Woodlawn residents celebrated Emmett Till’s birthday on Sunday with an ice cream social outside Till’s childhood home on St. Lawrence Avenue.

But this year’s party was special because it marked the groundbreaking of renovations on the home, which is expected to be turned into a museum by 2025.

The ice cream social also marked the opening of an interactive art installation, “Be Careful, I Always Am,” by Chicago-born artist Germane Barnes.

Strips of vinyl inscribed with words from Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, hang along three stories of scaffolding on the north side of the home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave.

Barnes incorporated the quotes from historical research by the group Preservationist Futures. That group has been interviewing Till’s family and neighbors in preparation for opening the museum.

Ice cream is handed out during celebration event honoring Emmett Till’s birthday at the Emmett & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre located at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue in the West Woodlawn, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Guests attend an ice cream social held every year in honor of Emmett Till’s birthday. Till, who was killed in Mississippi in 1955, would have turned 82 on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“We wanted to use quotes that speak to happiness, joy and longevity, as opposed to quotes that spoke to the awful atrocity,” Barnes said.

Till, the Black Chicago youth whose lynching in 1955 at age 14 in Mississippi helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, lived on the second floor of the home with his mother.

The installation represents a timeline of Till’s life, Barnes said.

From the left, the sheets are vertical to represent Till’s iconic necktie. Moving right, the sheets are broken up, symbolizing the “mangled version of Emmett in the casket,” Barnes said.

EMMETT_TILL.jpg

Emmett Till in 1955, about six months before he was killed.

Associated Press

Mamie Till-Mobley’s quotes begin with optimism. “In a way, Bo and I were more like brothers and sisters than mother and son, we had no secrets from each other,” one line of sheets reads.

They end, as Till’s life did, tragically: “People really didn’t know that things this horrible could take place ...”

At ground level, hammocks hang from the scaffolding to show that visitors are a part of the story too, Barnes said.

People line dance to during celebration event honoring Emmett Till’s birthday at the Emmett & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre located at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue in the West Woodlawn, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

People dance at a celebration honoring Emmett Till’s birthday and the launch of a project to create a museum on the site of his childhood home in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“My mother says to me any time I’ll leave the house, ‘Be careful,’” Barnes said. “And I always flippantly say that I always am. But you never know if you may never make it home.”

The art installation prioritized sustainability, Barnes said, following the mission of the building’s owner, Blacks in Green. The vinyl was recycled. The art piece also provides shade in the lot adjacent to Till’s home, where owners plan to build a performance space.

The art piece will be displayed until November, around Till-Mobley’s birthday, Barnes said.

Sunday also marked the groundbreaking of renovations on the home. It’s the first step in creating the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre, its owners said.

The home’s first level will become a museum with artifacts from Till’s life. The second floor will re-create the apartment where Till grew up. Its owners hope to make the home a tourist destination.

The restoration will cost $2 million to $3 million, according to Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green. The group is still seeking funding to complete the project.

Naomi Davis stands in front the Emmett & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum, Garden and Theatre located at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue in the West Woodlawn during a celebration event honoring Emmett Till’s birthday, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Naomi Davis of the nonprofit Blacks in Green stands in front of the home where Emmett Till lived with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The first phase of restoration will repair the exterior: tuckpointing bricks, installing a new roof membrane and triple-pane windows, said David Yocca, director of green infrastructure for Blacks in Green.

When funding is secured, owners will gut the interior of the home and build the museum, he said. They’ve already installed a butterfly garden in the home’s front yard.

For years, Till’s childhood home was at risk of deterioration or demolition after the failure of previous landmark efforts.

The home had been purchased in 2019 by a developer who was unaware of its history. The next year, Blacks In Green bought it. A few months later, Chicago’s City Council designated the building a landmark.

Bertha Thomas, a relative of Till who grew up in the home on St. Lawrence Avenue, said she’s ecstatic about how the restoration and museum could revitalize the neighborhood.

She connected Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to keep Emmett’s casket open at his funeral to the current push to preserve Till’s legacy in a museum.

“We need to know what our history is. We need to prevent things of this nature from happening ever again. And I feel like what Mamie did was part of that,” Thomas said.

On Saturday, President Joe Biden announced he will establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State St., in Bronzeville, where Till’s mutilated body was displayed in an open casket.

The 82nd anniversary of Emmett Till’s birth is Tuesday.

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