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Church That Hosted Emmett Till’s Funeral Is Designated ‘Endangered’

The Chicago church where thousands flocked to the funeral of Emmett Till — the 14-year-old who was brutally tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 — has been placed on a national list of endangered historic sites.

The church, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, is among the 11 sites included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2020 list of the most endangered historic places in the United States. The list, which the trust has compiled annually for over 30 years, seeks to raise awareness of sites that are at risk “of destruction or irreparable damage.”

Over the years, more than 300 places have been featured on the nonprofit’s list, and less than 5 percent of the listed sites have been lost, according to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer of the trust.

The list is “a powerful tool” that helps rally support and attention around the country to sites in need of help to preserve their legacies, she said.

“Historic preservation can and must be a tool for racial justice and reconciliation,” Ms. Malone-France said. “And I think Roberts Temple, in both its history and its potential for ongoing use by the community, demonstrates that.”

The church, in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, hasn’t hosted a full Sunday service in more than a year because of concerns about the church’s structural integrity, said Sharon Roberts Hayes, a member of the Roberts Temple congregation and a great-granddaughter of the church’s founder. The church moved into its current building in the 1920s, and it was designated a Chicago landmark in 2006.

The church hasn’t had enough money to hire a structural engineer to fully evaluate the building, Ms. Hayes said. There has been so much concern about the stability of the church that members often meet via conference call or in small groups in the building’s basement.

“The flooring is sloping, it’s uneven,” Ms. Hayes said. She added that if you bounce too much — a risk in a Pentecostal congregation that prizes physical as well as emotional involvement in services — “the church shakes.”

The preservation of Roberts Temple has had strong support from the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and an eyewitness to his kidnapping; his wife, Marvel McCain Parker; the Roberts family; and local and national organizations.

At a news conference at Roberts Temple on Thursday, Mr. Parker recalled sitting in church the day of his cousin’s funeral.

“I could remember saying, ‘I’ll see him again — that’s not Emmett, I’ll see him again,’ and I’ll live with that,” he said.

For many, Till’s death and the funeral services that followed at Roberts Temple in early September 1955, which were widely covered by the Black press, reflected a turning point in the civil rights movement.

Till, whose body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, was originally expected to be buried in that Southern state. Then word spread that his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, wanted Till’s body to be sent to his native Chicago, according to Dave Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas who helped create the Emmett Till Memory Project.

For the funeral, Till’s coffin was left open for public viewing at the insistence of his mother. Experts have estimated that close to 100,000 people came to Roberts Temple to pay their respects.

A photo of Till’s body taken by the photographer David Jackson and published in Jet magazine showed the gruesome reality of the boy’s lynching. Professor Tell called it “one of the most influential photos of the civil rights movement.”

“It’s noncontroversial to say that the Till funeral at Roberts Temple made the Till murder a national and international story,” he said.

The home Till lived in before he visited Mississippi recently received preliminary landmark status from the Chicago Commission on Landmarks, according to local reports. The Emmett Till Memorial, a historic marker placed in the area where it is believed his body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, has been repeatedly vandalized over the years and was replaced with a bulletproof sign in 2019. There has also been a push to restore Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where Till was accused of whistling at a white woman, which led to his kidnapping and murder by two white men.

In light of protests and demonstrations surrounding the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a renewed look has been given to symbols, including memorials and monuments, that highlight the nation’s history.

According to Professor Tell, historic sites have become “the new lunch counters,” where people tend to gather.

“It seems like time and again, people are working out their racial politics at memorials,” he said. “And what’s at stake are the stories that get told about American history and what stories get dignified in public.”

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