By: Dave Tell
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC) is a non-profit organization in Sumner, Mississippi dedicated to using the story of Emmett Till for social justice in the twenty-first century.
It is located at 105 North Court Street, across the street from Sumner’s Tallahatchie County Courthouse, in the space historically occupied by Wong’s Grocery.
The Center was created by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC). The ETMC, in turn, was created through the remarkable work of Jerome Little. Little was the first African-American to serve as chairman of Tallahatchie County’s Board of Supervisors. In January 2006, Little was brainstorming how to bring money into the County when a state legislator exclaimed, “Hell, Jerome, you’ve got a great thing right there in Sumner: the Courthouse where the Emmett Till trial took place.” Within days the ETMC was founded as a 501 (C) (3). The story of ETMC’s founding is important. The fact that it was born in a meeting devoted to financial strategy signals a key point: Emmett Till memory work was being driven by a need for tourism revenue. By 2009, the ETMC was officially acting as an “advisory council” to the Board of Supervisors on “tourism and development.”
The ETMC was originally created with a specific project in mind: the restoration of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner to its 1955 condition—its condition at the time of the Till trial. Significantly, the Courthouse Restoration project perfectly satisfied both of the factors driving the creation of the ETMC. It was a mechanism for remembering Emmett Till AND a mechanism for generating tourist revenue. The connections between tourism, memory, and the Courthouse restoration were so important to the ETMC that they made them explicit in their bylaws. Drafted in 2007, the bylaws explained that the ETMC was “established by the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors for the purpose of fostering racial harmony and reconciliation and to seek federal, state, and private funds to initially restore the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi.”
In order to complete the Courthouse Restoration, the ETMC secured a Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The ETMC kick-started the Restoration in grand fashion. In October of 2007, they held a ceremony on the Courthouse steps to announce the restoration and—in a controversial move—issue a public apology (or “statement of regret”) for Till’s murder. Emmett Till’s family attended the ceremony, as did dignitaries from across the state. Eight years later, in March of 2015, the ETMC hosted a second ceremony, this one to celebrate the newly restored courthouse.
The same grant that paid for the courthouse also paid for the restoration of Wong’s Grocery and the creation of the space in which the Emmett Till Interpretive Center now stands. It was originally envisioned as a “Visitor Center” for those visiting the Courthouse. To this end, it features a handful of exhibits, a small library, and short video to help people learn about the murder of Emmett Till.
But the Center has done far more than function as a visitor center. Under the sound leadership of Patrick Weems since 2013, the Interpretive Center provides organized mentoring relationships for youth across the Delta; it uses oral histories as a mechanism to foster racial memory and racial reconciliation; and it organizes an internship program every summer for youth (from junior high students through college students) who wish to help others think through the challenges of racial reconciliation. Most recently, the Interpretive Center received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create an Emmett Till Fellowship program. Local high school and college students will be recruited for the program and will be introduced to the museum field. Fellows will conduct oral histories in preparation for a film workshop that will lead to the creation of six new films that highlight the positive legacy of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement.
As this project makes apparent, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center is the premier organization in the Mississippi Delta seeking to foster the memory of Emmett Till in order to further racial reconciliation in the present day.