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Grant to expand professor's work commemorating civil-rights martyr

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor will lead a project to create content transforming the Mississippi courtroom where Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted in 1955 into an interactive history museum, using part of a half-million-dollar grant just announced by the National Park Service.

The grant to the Emmett Till Memorial Commission of Tallahatchie County Inc. is one of 39 totaling $7.75 million in the NPS African American Civil Rights Grant Program. The money will be used to complete the restoration of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner and to install interpretive exhibitions in the building.

That’s where Dave Tell, associate professor of communication studies, comes in. Working with a community group in Mississippi and scholars across the country, he has created the Emmett Till Memory Project, a website and GPS-enabled smartphone app designed to commemorate the death and memory of Till. The project focuses on 51 sites in and around the Mississippi Delta that played a significant role in the case, which helped spark the civil rights movement. Till was a black teenager, and his killers were white men.

The Memorial Commission has agreed to adapt the project’s digital content for use in the courtroom and courthouse, and Tell will lead that work.

“There are 12 windows in the courtroom, and when the shades are pulled down, they will double as screens,” Tell said. “There will be projectors in the ceiling, and the content they display on the screens will direct people to other sites outside the courtroom – the grocery store where Emmett whistled at a white woman and started the chain of events, the place where he was killed, etc.

“At each site, visitors will get a slightly different version of the story, and, hopefully, as they move around, they will learn not only the facts but how memory works. … It changes, depending on who is telling the story.”

Although the building remains an active courthouse, and therefore cannot house physical exhibitions, digital commemorative displays are allowed.

“This way, whenever court is not in session, it becomes a commemorative space,” Tell said.

In addition to the projectors and screens, plans call for the addition of speakers, sensors and a touch-screen kiosk. There is no timeline, as yet, for completion of the work.

The courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Between 2007 and 2013 the second-floor courtroom and the building’s exterior were restored to their 1955 appearance. The current award will restore the original entrances, reopen the vault and, in general, return the building’s first floor to its 1955 condition. When the work is done, the entire courthouse will be restored to its 1955 condition.

The Emmett Till Memory Project is a collaborative project with Patrick Weems of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, Davis Houck of Florida State and Chris Spielvogel of Penn State.

Photos: At top, the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Photo by Pablo Correa. At right, Emmett Till. Photo via WikiCommons.