Questions Swirl After Yet Another Emmett Till Sign Comes Down

When it was notified this week that another sign commemorating Emmett Till had disappeared, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center had every reason to be worried.

Since 2008, when placards identifying places of significance in the brutal killing of 14-year-old Emmett were first installed around the Mississippi Delta, several signs have been vandalized: blotted out with acid, shot at, left in the same river where the boy’s body was pulled from the water in August 1955.

On Thursday, the center announced on Twitter that the historical marker in front of the site of the former Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Miss. — where Emmett went to buy candy and was later accused of flirting with the white shopkeeper, eventually leading to his lynching by two white men — was gone.

But Allan Hammons, whose public relations firm made the marker for the Mississippi Freedom Trail, which was created in 2011 to commemorate the people and places in the state that played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement, said that he suspected no foul play.

On Tuesday, shortly after Mr. Hammons received a call saying that the sign was “missing or damaged,” a colleague visited the site and saw the marker lying on the ground, Mr. Hammons recalled in a phone interview on Saturday. He then asked the Leflore County Road and Bridge Department to retrieve and store the sign until he could evaluate if it needed to be repaired or replaced. When Mr. Hammons surveyed the site after the placard had been picked up, he saw large tire tracks that he said could have belonged to a “utility type truck.”

His guess is that a truck driver may have inadvertently backed into the post, perhaps without even realizing it.

“Oftentimes this happens,” Mr. Hammons said, estimating that his firm loses five to six historical markers each summer to human error. Mr. Hammons added that he had no way to know if this instance was intentional or accidental.

But the Emmett Till Interpretive Center is reluctant to write off the incident as an accident, given the history of vandalism of signs memorializing the boy’s death.

The marker in front of Bryant’s Grocery has been damaged to the point of needing replacement once before, in 2017, according to David Tell, co-director of the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Mr. Tell, who has kept track of when and how signs commemorating Emmett have been vandalized, said the marker had been blacked out with what appeared to be acid to the point that the text and images were illegible.

Another marker on the shore of the Tallahatchie River just outside Glendora, Miss., where Emmett’s body was recovered from the water after he had been kidnapped, tortured and lynched 66 years ago, has been replaced four times. The last sign to be installed was made of bulletproof steel, since so many of the others had been shot at hundreds of times.

“There’s a lot of red flags when the sign goes missing,” Patrick Weems, co-founder of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, said in an interview.

He said he got a call about the missing placard from a colleague who oversees aspects of the Mississippi Freedom Trail. Mr. Weems was in Washington, D.C., with Emmett’s family at the time, inducting the first historical marker commemorating Emmett — scarred with 317 bullet holes — into the National Museum of American History “to recognize the pattern of vandalism to these historical markers,” he said.

“We still have lots of questions,” Mr. Weems said. “And we hope that local officials won’t be dismissive and ask some more questions to get to the bottom of it.”

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is working to secure federal protections for this marker as well as many of the others commemorating Emmett and historical sites like Bryant’s Grocery, which he said seemed to be defaced every six months to a year.

“We’re tired of this, you know?” Mr. Weems said. “Regardless of whether this was an accident or not, there is a clear pattern of violence against these signs, and we think it’s time for the federal government to step up and take responsibility for this national American story.”


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