Look away, Dixie Land — Part 1

Published 7:35 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Here’s the story in case, like me, you weren’t around when it happened: On a dog day of summer in 1955, Chicago native Emmett Till walked into Bryant’s Grocery, a simple mom-and-pop storefront similar to 100 others dotting the South at that time. His fateful encounter there put a small, deep-Delta town called Money on the map and Mississippi in the international spotlight.

As news of Till’s brutal murder spread, a movement galvanized. The Hospitality State became ground zero for much of its activities, garnering a reputation for racial strife that became the stuff of Hollywood movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “A Time to Kill.”

Now, six decades later, Mississippi has opened the nation’s only state-operated civil rights museum. Next week, I’ll be taking a group of students there to Gallery Four, which focuses on Till’s story. We’ll see the worn doors from Bryant’s Grocery as well as photographs — blown up larger than life — from the 14-year-old’s funeral. Their sepia tones stretch from eye level to soaring ceiling, allowing visitors no escape from the sight of Till’s childish face or his mother’s anguished one, iconic images that helped awaken America from its civil rights stupor.

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Rousing Mississippi took longer. The new museum provides proof of that, not only in the timeline of painful events it depicts, but also in its difficult road toward construction. Although state residents tried for years to establish a civil rights museum, money was always a problem. When state officials became convinced that telling the tragic history was necessary and could also attract tourist dollars, the ball finally got rolling.

As I did some research last year, I found it interesting that supervisors in Tallahatchie County reached a similar conclusion. While brainstorming ways to increase revenue, someone suggested the town of Sumner (pop. 316) had tourism potential: The trial and acquittal of Emmett Till’s accused murderers took place in its two-story courthouse. Soon after that meeting, a courthouse restoration began, but not before the community of Sumner broke a half-century silence concerning what had happened within the courthouse walls. During a 2007 ceremony, community leaders offered the Till family a formal apology, including a declaration that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”

Truth telling, when it comes to the highly publicized 1955 trial in Sumner, is ugly. Prosecutors charged Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, both white, with murdering Till, whom they beat, shot, and weighed down with a cotton gin fan before dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. Following five days of testimony, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted them. Just four months later, Look magazine published their jarring confessions, made null by double jeopardy conditions. Support for Bryant and Milam evaporated. Within a year of the trial, their families had closed or sold their string of Delta businesses.

Today, visitors to Sumner can tour a courthouse that looks much as it did in the 1950s. Using newsreel footage for reference, craftsmen meticulously restored the banister railing, 12 swiveling jury seats, and original windows found in a nearby shed. A new interpretive center across the street helps visitors process what they see. Director Patrick Weems says the goal is changed perspectives: “The idea is to reframe how people think about Emmett Till. We want them to understand that the tragedy led to the beginning of the civil rights movement.”

Two hundred miles south of Sumner, another community is also learning to bank on its less palatable pages of history. Tourists each year spend more than $110 million in Spanish-moss-draped Natchez, the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River. Until recently, they rarely heard the slave side of the city’s story.

But that attitude is changing. While planning for the city’s tricentennial in 2016, Natchez officials embraced a developing dimension of the city’s overall tourism product: African-American heritage.

I spoke with Jeremy Houston, 30, co-owner of Miss Lou Heritage Group and Tours. “It’s important that the stories of people of African descent be told by people who look like me,” he stressed. “I give my customers truth, not myth.”  One of his stops? The old Forks in the Road Slave Market, a spot most other guides neglect.

It’s easy to miss. Without markers, the grassy knoll that once housed the second-largest slave market in the then-Southwest could easily fade into anonymity beside its modern neighbors, Solar Eclipse Window Tinting and a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses.

According to Houston, antebellum mansion Monmouth, in plain view across the street, keeps things in focus: “Customers have mixed emotions at the Forks. We walk the path where enslaved people — some carrying babies — walked in chains. I tell them what went on here. I explain that the motto was ‘Buy more negroes to raise more cotton to buy more negroes.’”

The experience sells. Houston says European tourists, as well as those from Australia, “love it.” Other guides have since followed Houston’s lead, adding an African-American heritage angle to their packages. But some Mississippians question the push to rebrand past struggles as tourism products.

I’ll have more on that next week.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.