The Unfinished Story of Emmett Till’s Final Journey

The mean household income in Glendora is under $20,000. There isn’t a hotel, gas station, clinic, or restaurant for miles in any direction. In Tell’s book, he points out that within the town’s sixth of a mile are 18 signs related to Emmett Till — only four of them verified by the ETMC.

“No wonder,” Tell writes, “questions of commemoration insistently circle around questions of economic development.”

The exhibits at the ETHIC, admission $5, are a collage of local blues, mayoral biography, and Emmett Till history, including a more-or-less to-scale sculptural recreation of Till’s body in his open casket, and a painted cardboard version of the pickup in which his body was carried, with cut-out paper drops of blood “dripping” from the truck bed with string and Scotch tape — blunt but artful renderings that might be as welcome in an exhibition of self-taught artists as in this stark panorama of a murder’s aftermath.

“We brought the Emmett Till legacy back alive after lying dormant for almost 50 years,” Thomas tells me in the driveway of the museum, speaking of his work with the ETMC and his efforts to secure grant funding and tourism for his town. “Bringing it back caused a whole bunch of problems. Some people say we need to move on. And some people say I’m keeping it alive to try and benefit,” he said of the local response to his commemoration efforts. “But I can’t seem to benefit from it, myself.”

The economic opportunities attached to civil rights tourism are real: Recent research shows that Black culture and history sites — like the nearby Civil Rights Trail or Mississippi Blues Trail — have a universal draw across various races and demographics; and Black tourists have increased their spending on travel by a third over the past decade. The brand-new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is the first state-funded civil rights museum in the country. Democratic State Sen. John Horhn had to introduce the bill 11 different times before he convinced his conservative colleagues to fund it — and then only with the compromise of an adjoining more “general” state history museum. The promise of tourist dollars for Mississippi’s capital was ultimately too compelling for lawmakers to disagree. They knew that civil rights tourism meant the possibility of jobs, revenue, and economic development.

Thomas knows this too, and in his town, the need for economic stimulus is make-or-break: In small, rural, post-cotton towns like here and nearby Money, populations have dropped 75% since the closure of their cotton gins.

Would a hearse be a better remembrance of Till if it were restored for tourists, part of a pristine picture of the past?

“As you can see, this community here is 99-plus percent low wealth,” he adds. “Our effort has been to try to create sustainability for our community and to remove this stigma of poverty. They decided to just leave us out of it down here when we attempted to do anything,” he said. He gestures back at the imposing metal building with Emmett Till’s face posted above the door. His plan was to make this site as comfortable and highly trafficked as the renovated Sumner courthouse, but the building — which badly needs a new roof, among other things — is far from it. “It took off and left us.”

To Thomas’ great disappointment, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has rejected every application for grant funding he has submitted on behalf of ETHIC or any related Till commemorative efforts in Glendora. In part, this is because the history behind many of these — like so much of Emmett Till history — is mired in uncertainty. Thomas’ suggestion that the cotton gin fan that weighed Till down in the river came from this site is debated. His theory that the bridge nearby is where Till’s murderers threw the boy in the river before it floated a few miles to the banks at Graball Landing is tangled up in other largely refuted theories. And while historians tend to agree with Thomas that his father was somehow involved in or present for Till’s death, there is no proof. Henry Lee Loggins, who lived into his nineties, never confessed to his involvement.

The thin but steady stream of visitors that do arrive don’t get too caught up in those details. Against the backdrop of, as Tell puts it, “staggering poverty” in Glendora, Thomas’ museum paints a compelling picture for civil rights tourists: “If you really want to get into the Emmett Till story, this is ground zero,” wrote a reviewer on TripAdvisor in July 2018. “It gives you a real feel for what happened.”

With no museum gift shop, no café, few to no businesses in the village of Glendora, and no grant money on the way, it will never realize the economic boost that tourism could bring. In the context of the economically distressed Delta, the exact details of history take second stage to the raw honesty of the ETHIC, regardless of how tangled that honesty is in a hope for economic development for Glendora.

The Glendora Gin, where Till’s murderers claimed a cotton gin fan was stolen to weigh down Till’s body. It is now the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center.

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