By: Dave Tell
Until August 2, 2011, Ben Roy’s Service Station had no connection to the murder of Emmett Till beyond its proximity to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. Bryant’s market, located sixty-seven feet north of Ben Roy’s, was the site of Till’s alleged whistle.
From the early twentieth century until 2003, the station now known as Ben Roy’s was owned and operated by the R. L. Kirby and subsequently the Ben Roy Kirby family of Money. In the 1950s, Ben Roy’s was the site of a thriving community center in addition to a gas station. Customers came for more than gas. They also came for refreshments and the opportunity to visit with the proprietors. There was a jukebox on the porch, and on the weekends both whites and African-American field hands would come to Ben Roy’s to enjoy the music. Much like Bryant’s, Ben Roy’s was an important social gathering space for a rural community.
After the murder, support for Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market waned. Although Roy Bryant had been acquitted legally, the community seemed to know that he was guilty, and they responded by refusing to frequent his store. When asked why he frequented Ben Roy’s, a local fisherman made these sentiments explicit. The Bryant’s, he explained, “are not the kind of people we do business with.” Within a year, Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market was out of business, and the Bryant’s had escaped community approbation by moving to Texas.
Ben Roy’s suffered no such losses in the wake of the murder. Business continued to thrive. In fact, some locals (such as the fisherman mentioned above) who once frequented Bryant’s store now went one storefront south and gave their business to Ben Roy. These business patterns suggest that, at least to the satisfaction of locals, Ben Roy’s had nothing to do with the murder. It was, to the contrary, a place of refuge from the murder-stained store next door; a community center where good fun could still be purchased with a good conscience.
On August 2, 2011, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) informed property owners Annette T. Morgan and Harry Ray Tribble that their application for a Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites Grant was being funded in the amount of $152,004.80. A subsequent addendum increased the grant to $206,360.80. Morgan and Tribble, who purchased the property from Ben Roy Kirby in 2003, used the money to hire Beard & Riser Architects and Katt Construction to restore Ben Roy’s to its 1950s status. The restoration was complete by July 2014.
Annette Morgan and Harry Tribble are sister and brother, the progeny of the late Ray Tribble, a juror in the Emmett Till trial. Since the 1980s the family has also owned the now-crumbling Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. It is unclear why the family used a civil rights grant to restore Ben Roy’s—a structure with no civil rights history beyond its proximity to the Bryant store—rather than restore the Bryant Store itself. One possibility is cost. The fact that the Bryant store was little more than ruins by 2011 while Ben Roy’s remained structurally sound meant it would cost far less to restore Ben Roy’s. An estimate provided by the MDAH indicates that simply to stabilize the Bryant store “as a ruin” would cost upwards of $700,000.
One thing we know for sure, when Morgan and Tribble approached the MDAH for money, they argued that its proximity to the Bryant store made Ben Roy’s itself a civil rights site. The service station, they argued, could be a “visitor’s center to be associated with the adjacent Bryant’s Grocery.” It could be an “interpretive space” for the civil rights movement. And the portico could be used to give “civil rights lectures” out of the sun and at a safe distance from the crumbling Bryant store. The grant application even compared Ben Roy’s to the former headquarters of the legendary civil rights organization SNCC—the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
The now-beautifully restored Ben Roy’s is a testament to the ways in which the memory of Till’s murder continues to transform the Delta landscape. To the untrained eye, Ben Roy’s might look like little more than a period piece, a nostalgic reminder of day-to-day life in the 1950s. It is important to remember, however, that this glance into the 1950s has been made possible by Till’s murder. Had Emmett Till not whistled at Carolyn Bryant sixty-seven feet to the north and thus set in motion one of our nation’s great tragedies, Morgan and Tribble never would have won a civil rights grant to restore a gas station, a jukebox, and a deceivingly innocent glimpse of the 1950s.