The National Museum of American History will display a notorious sign that, once erected to mark racist murder in Mississippi, was itself the subject of violence in the recent past. Serving as a reminder that some of the racism that used to permeate the United States, particularly in the South in the years following the Civil War, has not gone away despite a several decades long civil rights movement, the sign will go on public display in Washington DC.
Tsione Wolde-Michael, a curator of African American social justice history at the Smithsonian said that, at heart, the exhibit was being shown to begin a ‘talking point’ about racist violence and how connections between the past and present can be made through such discussions.
Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy to which the sign was originally erected, was murdered in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. After being lynched, his body was discovered at the confluence of the Tallahatchie River and the Black Bayou at a place named Graball Landing. In memory of his brutal murder, signs were erected, some of which were removed and thrown into the nearby waterways. Indeed, as recently as 2019, a trio of white students from the University of Mississippi, Charles Logan, John Lowe and Ben LeClere, posted a picture of themselves holding guns in front of one of the signs that had been put up to replace earlier, damaged ones. Despite significant public outrage at the act – and the fact that the sign was, once more, riddled with bullet holes – no criminal action followed since the evidence against the three was largely circumstantial.
Violence Past and Present
Wolde-Michael said that the vandalised sign demonstrates how historic racism and violence can continue into the present. Marking what would have been Till’s 80th birthday this year, the move to place it in a prominent position means that not only will Till be commemorated in the capital but the ongoing story of damage to his sign will be given more prominence. Dave Tell, a consultant involved in the project, wrote that every time a new sign was erected to mark the spot where Till was found, it would be vandalised, replaced and then vandalised once more. Indeed, this is what happened following the infamous incident involving the students. By the following October, the latest version of the sign that had replaced the one in the notorious photograph, an aluminium one, had been pierced by no fewer than 317 separate bullets holes.
A new sign, made of bulletproof steel, has now been erected in Graball Landing. However, the aluminium version that suffered the aforementioned damage was set aside. It is this one that will now be honoured at the National Museum of American History. “Our partners in the Mississippi community have risked their lives to commemorate and interpret this history again and again,” Wolde-Michael said. “We have been honoured by the trust they have placed in us to take stewardship of the sign.” The curator went on to add that it would now be the Smithsonian’s job to bring Till’s story – as well as the story of the sign – to the wider American public.
A Position of Prominence
The donated sign has been on display close to the original Star-Spangled Banner in the museum’s central hall since September 3rd. Meanwhile, the glass-topped casket that once held Till’s body, can be viewed at the nearby Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This artefact is part of an exhibition called Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968, a permanent installation at the museum. Patrick Weems, a co-founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said that the US was still grappling with some of the same issues concerning racist violence. “There are parallels when thinking about Emmett Till and 2021,” he said.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.