The Black Bayou Bridge, where the body of Emmett Till was possibly dropped into the water and carried three miles before it was recovered. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland

The Unfinished Story of Emmett Till’s Final Journey

Till was murdered 65 years ago. Sites of commemoration across the Mississippi Delta still struggle with what’s history and what’s hearsay.

The Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse stands like a castle in the central square of Sumner, Mississippi. With its four-story Romanesque brick clocktower, the building looks just as it did 65 years ago when an all-white jury gathered here and acquitted the men who lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till.

The verdict came in late September, the last week of summer. It was “hot as the very hinges” recalled resident Betty Pearson, who attended the trial. Every lawyer in town had signed on to defend Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam; businesses put out jars to collect donations for the defense. The proceedings took five days, and the deliberation — soda break included — was hardly more than an hour. A separate jury declined to find Bryant and Milam guilty of kidnapping two months later, and in January 1956, protected by double jeopardy, the pair confessed to the gruesome murder in a cover story for Look magazine.

Till’s murder and the exoneration of its perpetrators set off a tidal wave of civil rights activism. Tens of thousands of people filed past Till’s open casket at his funeral in Chicago; photographs of Mamie Till-Mobley weeping over her son’s brutalized body hung on the walls of organizers’ offices in Selma. Rep. John Lewis was 15 at the time, just one year older than Till. “Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” he wrote in an op-ed published posthumously in the New York Times. “He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor.”

But the counties in the Mississippi Delta where Till’s murder and the events that followed took place — Sunflower, Tallahatchie and Leflore — were a world apart from this fervor: There, white folks like Betty Pearson were horrified by the crime while others were horrified by the attention it received. Either way, it was all laid to rest quickly. Pearson recalled to a historian that no one in the area spoke of Emmett Till for 50 years.

This silence not only helped to maintain the region’s status quo of racial violence long after the end of Jim Crow, but it also meddled with history’s understanding of the crime. False testimonies at the trial and the murderers’ mostly fabricated narrative in Look muddied any sense of what actually took place, where it happened, and who was involved.

Because of racial barriers, investigators and historians wouldn’t interview key witnesses for years or even decades. Others took their accounts to the grave. The sites in Mississippi where key events took place were forgotten, became overgrown, or were quietly but defiantly razed. Through the years, revisionist history grew inextricably entangled with the truth. So when locals decided it was finally time to commemorate Emmett Till’s life and death in the Mississippi Delta, there was as much uncertainty about how to tell it as there was resistance to telling it at all.

In 2005, local advocates formed the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC), establishing the groundwork for civil rights tourism in the area. Civil rights and Black history markers dedicated by the Mississippi Blues Trail and the Mississippi Freedom Trail would soon follow, and over the next decade, as civil rights tourism grew into a multibillion-dollar opportunity, millions in grant funding would bring some of these places back to life: In 2015, the Sumner courthouse underwent a $3 million renovation.

Locals who prefer Emmett Till’s story go untold are carrying out their work as well. Many of the markers are bullet-riddled, corroded with acid, covered in graffiti — or they have simply disappeared.

A commemorative marker, with bullet holes, leads visitors to Graball Landing, where Till’s body is thought to have been recovered from the river.

In the center of Sumner, a commemorative marker describes the swift trial and how its outcome “drew international attention and galvanized the civil rights movement in Mississippi and the nation.” Shortly after it was put up in 2007, a man tried to tie it to the back of his pickup and yank it out of the ground. Neighbors talked him down.

Dave Tell, a historian and professor at the University of Kansas, describes the complexities of this commemoration in his 2019 book Remembering Emmett Till and helped the ETMC with the history on its markers. “This story isn’t confined to the events of 1955,” he told me. “It involves everything that’s happened since. It’s a story that is still unfolding.”

In October of last year, I attended the rededication ceremony for one of the most frequently defaced commemorative signs, at an old steamboat landing where Emmett Till’s body may have been pulled from the Tallahatchie River. The new marker was a bulletproof, armored steel marker coated in a replaceable flame-retardant polycarbonate sheath. Over the course of a week, I traveled to nearly a dozen Till sites across three counties, guided by Tell’s book and by a mobile app he helped create: the Emmett Till Memory Project, a catalog of 17 vetted and verified sites related to Till’s death, each with its own degree of historical veracity, each in a various state of revitalization or disrepair.

There is the site of a barn where some believe Till was beaten to death and the barn where he was more likely beaten to death; the cemetery where he was minutes from being buried in a shallow grave and the funeral home where he was embalmed instead; the bridge from which his body may have been dropped and the steamboat clearing where his body may have been recovered; the courthouse in Sumner, redone just as it looked in its heyday, when Emmett Till’s murderers and their wives joked and drank Coca-Cola during the trial’s recesses.

At a glance, the uncertainty and opposition that have long haunted the commemoration process might seem like obstacles to memory work, but as Tell says, these obstacles are part of the story. As that story unfolds along the dirt roads of Tallahatchie County and the wisps of river and bayous between them, commemoration overtakes the whole landscape — a dynamic, living monument to Emmett Till’s final journey.

The Funeral Home

Tutwiler, Mississippi

I drive from the Delta’s northernmost point in Memphis and travel south through Clarksdale, home of the Mississippi Blues. I’m following the Emmett Till Memory Project mobile app to the nearest pin: Tutwiler, population 3,416. My destination is the Tutwiler Funeral Home, a crumbling brick building covered in poison oak across the street from a police station. A purple commemorative marker erected by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission is barely visible amid vines and errant beams. Five-gallon buckets hold up u-channel posts wrapped in orange plastic fencing. A sign on a telephone pole reads “DANGER, KEEP OFF SIDEWALK.”

While a funeral home might seem to be an odd place to begin this journey, the embalming of Emmett Till was one of the most pivotal moments in the formation of his legacy. The day in August 1955 when his body was found, authorities nearly buried him according to Till’s great uncle Crosby Smith, unembalmed with no coffin in a “two-foot hole” in a cemetery in the town of Money. At the last minute, Till’s family interrupted the burial and redirected his remains here, 33 miles north of Money, to what is now a hodgepodge of bricks and litter, with its purple sign and orange fence on a wide, empty street.

When the hearse arrived in Tutwiler, historians mostly agree that the white funeral director had a Black embalmer, Woodrow Jackson, do the work on the child’s badly disfigured body, a job that took Jackson all night. Because of Jackson, Till’s family was able to take his body to Chicago for the open-casket funeral on which his mother insisted. The photos from the funeral, published in Jet magazine, sent a ripple effect of grief and anger across the country.

At Till’s trial, however, white Tutwiler embalmer Harry D. Malone was called as an expert witness. Jackson’s name wasn’t mentioned. Malone testified for the defense that because of the extent of the body’s decomposition, whoever this child was died well before Till went missing. This couldn’t be Emmett Till, he said, and without a body, there could be no crime.

The possible ruins of the Tutwiler Funeral Home, where Till’s body was embalmed (left), and a hearse inside the ruin (right).

The marker at the Tutwiler Funeral Home doesn’t address that Malone’s testimony was the backbone of the defense’s argument that set Till’s murderers free, but it does discuss the work of Jackson and how his embalming helped change America’s view of racial violence. Still, this mildly hazardous site on a deserted street feels like a dead-end or at least an anticlimactic start to my journey.

I hang around near my car, feeling a bit like an interloper despite the excuse of a commemorative marker, trying to figure out how to interact with the place. A local police officer, Charles Dixon, notes my interest. He comes out of the station, eager to be helpful, and asks me if I’m interested in Emmett Till. “Money got something going on up there, and there’s a sign that can tell you a little more about it,” he says. “And in Glendora, I don’t know who keeps knocking it down, but there’s a sign right there that’ll tell you all about Emmett Till.”

I ask Dixon about the state of the building, and he speculates the owner might be looking for funding to fix it up, as the ETMC did with the courthouse. Then he tells me to be sure to go round to the back of the ruin, where you can still see the hearse. It’s wrapped in vines lodged in rubble from the collapsed back wall. Would the hearse be a better remembrance of Till if it were restored for tourists, part of a pristine picture of the past? As it is, rusting under a pile of bricks, it is found only by those who seek it out.

Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center

Glendora, Mississippi

The next day, I set out from my base in Greenville, on the Mississippi River, and drive east through fields and past stands of bald cypress to Glendora, a small hamlet with a steadily declining population of around 100, tucked into the oxbow of the Black Bayou and Little Tallahatchie.

There I meet Rudy Jeffries, 34, who is traveling from the D.C. area with his mother, June. They pull up to a purple commemorative marker at the edge of town just a little before I do. We both leave our cars running while we get out to read about the murder of a local man, Clinton Melton, that took place in the wake of the trial. I feel awkward standing there reading the marker a few feet from them, as if I’ve walked into a church during mass.

A block down Glendora’s one-lane dirt main stretch, the next sign marks the former site of King’s Place, a juke joint where a Black journalist learned a tip about two other people who were present for the murder — two Black men who worked for J.W. Milam. A woman at the juke joint told the journalist that the men had been summoned by Milam on the night of Till’s murder and were involved in his abduction, then put in jail a county away to keep them from testifying.

“This story isn’t confined to the events of 1955. It involves everything that’s happened since.”

When Rudy and June Jeffries and I inadvertently caravan there together, I introduce myself. They’ve just been to the Till sites in Money and at Graball Landing, June Jeffries tells me. She pulls a glossy 8-by-10 photograph out of a folder in the back seat of the car: It’s a young Rudy with Mamie Till-Mobley.

“I met Emmett Till’s mother when I was 14,” Rudy says. “That was 20 years ago. We only spoke for five or eight minutes, but she talked about her son and his interests, and I remember our interests overlapped because we were the same age. I thought, ‘It could have been me,’” he says. “Now I have two kids, and I think, ‘It could have been them.’”

When we get back in our cars, we’re all bound for the same next site: the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC), a homespun museum in a historically significant cotton gin. The museum has a single patron, Johnny Thomas, a founding member of the ETMC and a determined champion for Till commemoration in Glendora, where he has been the mayor of this entirely Black town for nearly 40 years. His father, Henry Lee Loggins, was one of the silent witnesses who worked for Milam.

Within a sixth of a mile, there are four commemorative markers in Glendora and a museum devoted to the memory of Emmett Till.

The mean household income in Glendora is under $20,000. There isn’t a hotel, gas station, clinic, or restaurant for miles in any direction. In Tell’s book, he points out that within the town’s sixth of a mile are 18 signs related to Emmett Till — only four of them verified by the ETMC. “No wonder,” Tell writes, “questions of commemoration insistently circle around questions of economic development.”

The exhibits at the ETHIC, admission $5, are a collage of local blues, mayoral biography, and Emmett Till history, including a more-or-less to-scale sculptural recreation of Till’s body in his open casket, and a painted cardboard version of the pickup in which his body was carried, with cut-out paper drops of blood “dripping” from the truck bed with string and Scotch tape — blunt but artful renderings that might be as welcome in an exhibition of self-taught artists as in this stark panorama of a murder’s aftermath.

“We brought the Emmett Till legacy back alive after lying dormant for almost 50 years,” Thomas tells me in the driveway of the museum, speaking of his work with the ETMC and his efforts to secure grant funding and tourism for his town. “Bringing it back caused a whole bunch of problems. Some people say we need to move on. And some people say I’m keeping it alive to try and benefit,” he said of the local response to his commemoration efforts. “But I can’t seem to benefit from it, myself.”

The economic opportunities attached to civil rights tourism are real: Recent research shows that Black culture and history sites — like the nearby Civil Rights Trail or Mississippi Blues Trail — have a universal draw across various races and demographics; and Black tourists have increased their spending on travel by a third over the past decade. The brand-new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is the first state-funded civil rights museum in the country. Democratic State Sen. John Horhn had to introduce the bill 11 different times before he convinced his conservative colleagues to fund it — and then only with the compromise of an adjoining more “general” state history museum. The promise of tourist dollars for Mississippi’s capital was ultimately too compelling for lawmakers to disagree. They knew that civil rights tourism meant the possibility of jobs, revenue, and economic development.

Thomas knows this too, and in his town, the need for economic stimulus is make-or-break: In small, rural, post-cotton towns like here and nearby Money, populations have dropped 75% since the closure of their cotton gins.

Would a hearse be a better remembrance of Till if it were restored for tourists, part of a pristine picture of the past?

“As you can see, this community here is 99-plus percent low wealth,” he adds. “Our effort has been to try to create sustainability for our community and to remove this stigma of poverty. They decided to just leave us out of it down here when we attempted to do anything,” he said. He gestures back at the imposing metal building with Emmett Till’s face posted above the door. His plan was to make this site as comfortable and highly trafficked as the renovated Sumner courthouse, but the building — which badly needs a new roof, among other things — is far from it. “It took off and left us.”

To Thomas’ great disappointment, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has rejected every application for grant funding he has submitted on behalf of ETHIC or any related Till commemorative efforts in Glendora. In part, this is because the history behind many of these — like so much of Emmett Till history — is mired in uncertainty. Thomas’ suggestion that the cotton gin fan that weighed Till down in the river came from this site is debated. His theory that the bridge nearby is where Till’s murderers threw the boy in the river before it floated a few miles to the banks at Graball Landing is tangled up in other largely refuted theories. And while historians tend to agree with Thomas that his father was somehow involved in or present for Till’s death, there is no proof. Henry Lee Loggins, who lived into his nineties, never confessed to his involvement.

The thin but steady stream of visitors that do arrive don’t get too caught up in those details. Against the backdrop of, as Tell puts it, “staggering poverty” in Glendora, Thomas’ museum paints a compelling picture for civil rights tourists: “If you really want to get into the Emmett Till story, this is ground zero,” wrote a reviewer on TripAdvisor in July 2018. “It gives you a real feel for what happened.”

With no museum gift shop, no café, few to no businesses in the village of Glendora, and no grant money on the way, it will never realize the economic boost that tourism could bring. In the context of the economically distressed Delta, the exact details of history take second stage to the raw honesty of the ETHIC, regardless of how tangled that honesty is in a hope for economic development for Glendora.

The Glendora Gin, where Till’s murderers claimed a cotton gin fan was stolen to weigh down Till’s body. It is now the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center.

The Delta Inn

Sumner, Mississippi

On Saturday, downtown Sumner is unusually bustling. Guests buzz in and out of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC), which the ETMC opened in 2015 just across the street from the restored courthouse. At the building’s gallery-like storefront, Patrick Weems, executive director of the ETIC, greets a series of familiar faces as people gather in advance of the dedication ceremony of the new bulletproof sign at Graball Landing: Jessie James Demming, who gives civil rights tours of the Delta; Jack Smith of Tupelo, son of the Till trial’s prosecutor, and his own son; Rev. Willie Williams, co-director of the ETMC; Rev. Wheeler Parker, Till’s first cousin and the last living witness to Till’s final days; Airika Gordon Taylor, an activist and a relation of Till’s mother’s, who passed away at age 50 in March of this year.

“If people know Sumner, they know it for Emmett Till,” Weems tells me. “Before, that was a bad thing. Now it’s good.”

In the past five years, Weems estimates visitors to the Emmett Till sites in Sumner have increased “from about 50 a month to about 50 a week.” In a town of fewer than 300, that traffic brings the kind of boost Glendora longs for. There’s no gift shop here, but Sumner does have a single restaurant, the Sumner Grille, which opened in 2013.

A water tower in Sumner, Mississippi.

Before we head to Graball Landing, I follow the Till app across the railroad tracks to another nearby site, the Delta Inn. A few houses stand separated by empty lots. Coral bean flowers streak across their lawns like little red footprints. The app displays an outdated black-and-white picture of a run-down but still-standing inn where visiting press stayed and where the jury sequestered during the trial.

Of the 17 Mississippi sites listed in the Emmett Till Memorial Project mobile app, 10 have signs. The others — the remains of Moses Wright’s timber-frame church, an empty field where J.W. Milam’s house used to stand, the Leflore County courthouse, the Charleston County jail, an estate that is now an urgent care center, a barn on private property, and the place I’m standing now — are important, but in these places, a memory of Emmett Till doesn’t present itself, doesn’t invite participants. They have to bring the commemoration with them. And of those sites, two are completely blank of physical structures at all, more voids than monuments. This is one.

In 2005, as the commemoration was underway, the ruin was purchased by John Whitten III, the son of Till’s murderers’ chief defense counsel. Shortly thereafter, he had it bulldozed to the ground. Early in their commemoration efforts, the ETMC put a marker at the site, but there is no trace of that here either. It is widely believed that Whitten made good on a threat that the sign would end up “on the bottom of the Tallahatchie River,” as the app explains.

Thus, the site remains unmarked. If commemoration requires an intentional, physical object, then Whitten got his way. The only thing that led me to this place are a few lines of text in an app and an outdated picture; what remains is a pile of rubble. I’m not even sure this is indeed the right rubble — it’s hard to tell whether I should be standing at the lot next door — but meditating on the fury that compelled Whitten to raze the Delta Inn, it feels like the right rubble.

The River Site

Graball Landing, Tallahatchie River

On a dirt road across from a cotton field, a tour group from D.C. files off a giant coach bus; parked cars stretch into the distance in both directions from the site, now a jungle of camera lenses and boom mics.

Dave Tell, the historian, weaves through the crowd to give some brief comments. He knows that making the markers less vulnerable won’t end the vandalism of Emmett Till sites in the Delta. In fact, he tells me later, it will probably only be seen as a challenge. And on the way here, every car passed by a commemorative marker at Sharkey Bridge that points the way to Graball Landing; that one is still riddled with bullet holes.

“Don’t you think the bullet holes are part of the story too?” he asks the audience. Whoops of approval rise from the crowd. “We not only have to reckon with what happened in 1955,” Tell continues, “we have to reckon with what’s happened since.”

A new, bulletproof sign at Graball Landing, the site that commemorates the recovery of Emmett Till’s body from the Tallahatchie River (left). A pile of rubble at near the site of the Delta Inn (right).

Back in Sumner, during a reception at the Sumner Grille, a live performance of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” floats over the clatter of plates passing through a fried chicken buffet line. I speak with Rebekah Flake, a professor of art at the University of Mississippi. She and one of her students attended the dedication. Before her job at Ole Miss, she studied monuments in Berlin. There, she said, the Holocaust was recent history.

“The whole city of Berlin is a monument to multiple periods,” she says. “As you walk down a street, you think, how was it divided during the Cold War? Was this one of the bunkers used during the Nazi era? There was a humbling effect to it that I don’t necessarily see going on in the South.”

Maybe, she speculated, that’s because this region in particular is rural and agrarian. “There just aren’t as many ruins here,” she said. “You have to add the monuments because the landscape doesn’t physically reflect the past.”

Indeed, at the river site, Tell told me after the ceremony concluded, “We don’t know for sure this is in the right place.” (Dale Killinger, an FBI investigator who revisited Till’s case, is convinced it was not.) Nevertheless, Tell said, monuments need a place to stand. At Graball Landing, the landowner granted the ETMC a 100-year-lease for their commemoration infrastructure. At that old steamboat clearing, of all the overgrown clearings on the ever-shifting river, some people will gather to remember Emmett Till — and others will come and challenge this defiant monument to his memory.

Not showcased at the dedication ceremony was the full capability of the security system, designed with the input of private prison consultants. If anyone comes too close, an alarm wails refrains of ear-splitting WONK WONK WONK. A notification containing footage of the interloper goes straight to Patrick Weems’ cellphone. A few weeks after the bulletproof sign went up, a security camera caught a white supremacist group filming a video in front of the marker. “We are all here at the Emmett Till monument that represents the civil rights movement for Blacks,” says a man in the video. “What we want to know is, where are all of the white people?” Standing too close to the sign, the group trips the alarm. WONK WONK WONK. They panic and scatter away like cockroaches.

Visitors make their way to the banks of the Tallahatchie River at Graball Landing for the rededication of the commemorative marker.

Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market

Money, Mississippi

After the dedication ceremony, I swing east into Leflore County, toward the hamlet of Money, the site of the encounter that led to Till’s murder. According to the account of Till’s cousin, who was present that day, young Till — naive to the dynamics of the Delta compared to his childhood homes of Chicago and Detroit — whistled at a white woman, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, outside Bryant’s Grocery.

The FBI reopened Till’s case in 2004, at which point Bryant repeated her 1955 testimony that Till had accosted her, but they reopened it yet again in 2017 after the publication of a book on the murder, The Blood of Emmett Till, in which Bryant recanted and admitted to exaggerating her story. Three years later, the investigation has yet to announce its findings.

Meanwhile, the two-story shop run by Bryant and her husband, Roy, has been all but laid to waste by weather and time. Now its roofless brick husk, in the shade of a giant magnolia tree, is surrounded by orange plastic fencing and rusty barbed wire. But in the 1980s, when it was still in decent condition, it was purchased by the Tribbles, the family of one of the jurors who found Bryant and Milam innocent. The Tribbles have no interest in saving or commemorating the building. They did, however, reportedly offer to sell it to commemorators, first for $40 million and later for $4 million. Barring such a sale, they are standing by while the building slowly disappears.

This whole region of the Delta, where almost nothing is presented with certainty, can be a place to remember Emmett Till.

On Google Reviews, some local guides leave the unattended ruins of Bryant’s one resentful star: “I hate this place of lies,” “This place shouldn’t exist,” “It should be knocked down.” Just as many five-star reviews present the opposite take, calling it powerful and historic: “If you knock it down you might as well erase it from the history books too. And let history repeat itself again and again.” I interviewed several road-trippers who visited the site, and they told me the feeling of forgottenness, desertion, and solitude helped them understand what it might feel like to be lost and alone in such a place.

Down the road was the house of Till’s great uncle Moses Wright, who Till had come to visit that summer. The house was destroyed by a storm in 1971; even its ruins are gone. The field is unmarked, and the church where Wright preached is a pile of white beams on the roadside. The cemetery near it, where Till was almost buried, is overgrown. Tell points out in his book that these last few sites in Money are in Leflore County, while the Emmett Till Memorial Commission is based in Tallahatchie — there is no budget earmarked for memory work here. But Tell hasn’t given up on Bryant’s: “When I think of the future and where I want to put my energy, I think of that site,” he tells me.

I ask him if he would like to see Bryant’s Grocery restored, like the courthouse. “Restore is the wrong word,” Tell says. “I want to stabilize it as a ruin.”

“The neglect of the store is kind of the perfect analog,” he explains. “I would hate to paper over that neglect by making it look just like it did in 1955.”

Emmett Till was lynched while visiting family in Money, Mississippi. Local authorities almost buried this body in a shallow grave in this cemetery. His family intervened and insisted the body be embalmed and returned home to Chicago.

The Seed Barn

Drew, Mississippi

It is my last day in the Delta, and it’s raining. On my way back north, I have two more stops to make: one site I haven’t visited yet, and one I want to see again.

I head to the town of Drew to find the seed barn at the Sturdivant Plantation, widely understood to be the place where Till was brought by his murderers and beaten to death. The app brings me straight to Drew’s central square, with a gazebo and a Mississippi Blues Trail marker for the Staples Singers, but no barn in sight. Upon closer inspection, I find the app’s fine-print disclaimer: The current owners of the plantation property have asked the Till app not to disclose the site’s location. Private tours might be available via the Emmett Till Interpretive Center on request. But Google Maps has more data; I follow its route to the “Emmett Till Seed Barn” three miles west and pull off the dirt road along the edge of a field.

Down a dirt road and across from a cornfield is the Dougherty Bayou, speckled with ancient-looking cypress trees, and beyond it, the barn. It’s a bucolic scene, disrupted by my immediate thought: The barn sits well within earshot of the big white plantation house, or this possibly newer house in its place, with its oblivious driveway basketball court.

I’m haunted by the idea that the sounds of Till being murdered would be audible to whoever had lived in that house, and yet the crime carried on, perhaps for hours. The truck drove on this road I am on. It crossed this bayou. Like the Delta Inn, this site, no matter how historically significant, is unmarked. Like Bryant’s Grocery, it is on private property that enjoys its privacy. And by its persistent anonymity, Tell writes, it perpetuates a lie told by the murderers in their Look magazine tell-all. They changed details to protect other guilty parties: By claiming the murder took place in Glendora instead of this barn, Bryant and Milam effectively kept at least two untried accomplices’ names quiet.

But I have come here to see it, as part of this landscape of memory, and in some way, I hope, that intention might accumulate in this place like silt in a delta that shifts the course of a river. I think of what Rebekah Flake said about Berlin: This whole region of the Delta, where almost nothing is presented with certainty, can be a place to remember Emmett Till.

“You have to add the monuments because the landscape doesn’t physically reflect the past.”

Now that I have seen the other Emmett Till sites, some with fanfare, some begging to be forgotten, the funeral home at Tutwiler, crumbling and litter-strewn, doesn’t seem so strange a monument. I want to see it one more time, and I am hoping Officer Dixon is around again. He is. He hops out of his idling police pickup, and we stand together in the rain under the station’s tattered awning.

“Look at these old buildings,” Dixon says. He’s pointing across the street at an old metal fixture on the brick building next to the funeral home, clinging to the façade after all these decades of disuse. “Isn’t amazing how age can stand so much storm, so much rain, so much wind, but the building’s still got life?”

Dave Tell told me this building might not even be the funeral home. He said there’s been talk among locals on Facebook that it once stood in the empty lot next door. But that won’t necessarily stop the building’s owner from maybe, one day, getting one of those civil rights tourism grants and fixing it up the way it was in 1955. Maybe this renovation would paper over the weight of its decades of degradation or risk romanticizing the past. Or maybe it would make this nondescript pile of bricks into a beacon of Till’s memory that people travel to see.

Dixon continues as the rain streams through holes in the awning onto his uniform and my notebook, answering a question I wondered but had not asked: “Sometimes, when life leaves, something across the street still picks it up, still keeps it. Not because of how the person’s gone but because the person’s being missed. Don’t need to take it back to the way it was to see it,” he says. “The memory of all that has never been lost.”

The bullet-riddled sign removed from the river site at Graball Landing, on view at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi.

Freelance writer contributing to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, etc. Based in Savannah, GA.

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