We went searching for Emmett Till on a Mississippi Delta pilgrimage, and along the way we unearthed legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, walked a Tallahatchie bridge, slept in sharecropper shacks, and ultimately uncovered traces of the teen martyr whose death gave birth to the modern Civil Rights Movement.
This story by Howard Blount is told through the lens of photographer Ashleigh Coleman.
Table of Contents
- 1 Searching for Emmett Till: A Mississippi Delta Pilgrimage
- 2 Rev. George Lee
- 3 Baptist Town
- 4 Robert Johnson
- 5 The Legacy of Emmett Till
- 6 Bryant’s Grocery
- 7 Mose Wright Homeplace
- 8 The Glendora Gin
- 9 Black Bayou Bridge
- 10 The Graball Landing River Site
- 11 Tallahatchie County Courthouse
- 12 Emmett Till Interpretive Center
- 13 Tallahatchie Flats
- 14 A Reflection on Heritage Tourism
- 15 Backroad Planet Collaborations with Ashleigh Coleman
- 16 Map It!
- 17 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 18 Pin this Post!
Searching for Emmett Till: A Mississippi Delta Pilgrimage
I am a traveler, and I find something to love on every journey and at virtually every destination. There are unforgettable days on the road and memorable experiences on every itinerary. And then there are days when the planets align, synchronicity kicks in, and the universe conspires to make things happen.
This would be one of those days.
I’m not saying all the elements of our drive into the Mississippi Delta were serendipitous. They weren’t. But things didn’t fully come together with people, schedules, and connections until the last 24 hours.
Jerry and I had begun this Civil War and Civil Rights themed road trip in Franklin, Tennessee. We traveled the Natchez Trace Parkway south into Mississippi, stopping in Tupelo, and continuing to Jackson where we met up with local photographer Ashleigh Coleman. Ashleigh had previously published The Haunting Town of Rodney, Mississippi, one of Backroad Planet’s most popular posts, but this would be our first time traveling together and our first time collaborating.
Photo Credit: Howard Blount
While in Jackson we attended a media preview event for the new Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. We also visited the Smith Robertson Museum, the home of Medgar Evers, ate lunch at Bully’s Restaurant, and took an after-hours tour of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Our first joint project, with Ashleigh’s photos and my story, was the post A Tale of Two Mississippi Museums.
Our second collaboration would be the one you are reading now . . . .
It was during my previous incarnation as a middle school reading and history teacher that I first learned the story of Emmett Till. Each Februrary, during Black History Month, I would teach a unit on the Civil Rights Movement, using A Dream of Freedom by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter as our focus title. My students were intrigued and inspired by these poignant and powerful stories of courageous young people from an era of American history far removed from their existence.
I, too, was captivated and profoundly affected by the stories we read, and I longed to someday visit the locales where the events in these historic narratives unfolded.
This was not my first Mississippi backroads experience, but somehow I discerned the promise this day held. I cannot speak for Jerry and Ashleigh, although I know they were deeply moved by the experience and treasure the memory of that day. As for me, I was on a personal mission, much like I had been while searching the world for Corrie ten Boom.
I remember learning how search-and-rescue teams in Mississippi would often find the remains of previously missing persons while investigating a more recent disappearance. In 1964, while searching for missing civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, a team discovered the brutalized bodies of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee.
In like manner, while searching for Emmett Till, we would uncover vestiges of other civil rights heroes, but also a Delta Blues legend, and more than a handful of flesh and blood Mississippians.
Rev. George Lee
The morning was gray, as if shrouded in a wet blanket, and it would last throughout the day.
Somehow it only seemed right.
While in Jackson, we had learned there was a museum honoring the memories of civil rights leaders Rev. George Lee and Fannie Lou Hamer. Because it was located along our northbound route near the town of Belzoni, we decided to check it out.
Alas, the museum was closed, so we elected instead to pay our respects at Rev. Lee’s gravesite.
An online search revealed that Rev. Lee was buried at Green Grove Baptist Church. Google Maps led us several miles south of town to an abandoned church in the middle of a fallow cotton field.
We scouted the perimeter of the ramshackle structure, but found no evidence of a cemetery and no sign indicating the name of the church.
Experience has taught us that wild goose chases are not always a bad thing. They become part of the travel adventure, and you often discover amazing sites previously off your radar. This was one of those occasions.
We all have a fascination with abandoned buildings, and in my opinion they are the best subjects for Ashleigh’s photography.
A few more online searches got us back on track and led us to the actual Green Grove Baptist Church and cemetery in Belzoni. The church sign and a Mississippi Freedom Trail historical marker confirmed we were in the right location.
Rev. George Lee was a businessman and pastor of four churches in the vicinity of Belzoni. As vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and co-founder of the local chapter of the NAACP, his passion was voter registration. Although he faced intimidation from Sheriff Ike Shelton, Lee became the first black voter to register in Humphreys County, and armed with a court order he was ultimately successful in registering all ninety of the county’s eligible black voters.
On May 7, 1955, while driving through town, an unidentified assailant pulled alongside Lee’s vehicle and fired three shotgun blasts. One of the shots ripped into Lee’s left jaw, and hIs car careened into the porch of a nearby house. Lee staggered from the car, but died from his injuries en route to the hospital.
NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who would several years later be assassinated in his own driveway, was sent to investigate the murder. Sheriff Shelton informed Evers that Lee had crashed his car into the house, and that the lead pellets seen in his mouth were dislodged fillings from his teeth.
Rev. Lee’s widow Rosebud chose to have an open-casket funeral, and photos of the body were published in Jet magazine in a prophetic pre-cursor to the actions Mamie Till-Mobley would take at the murder of her son Emmett three months later.
Rev. George Lee is considered to be the first martyr of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Other headstones at the Green Grove cemetery tell stories all their own.
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Back on the road, we continued north toward Greenwood. A last minute opportunity allowed us a brief detour to the historic neighborhood of Baptist Town, a destination on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
We met up with local historian Sylvester Hoover at his corner grocery store. After getting acquainted, we headed out into the drizzle for a quick and dirty guided tour of Baptist Town’s storied streets.
In the late 19th century, African American workers in the cotton industry began settling at this Greenwood location situated on “the other side of the tracks.”
Decades later, Baptist Town would become a refuge for musicians wanting to escape the cotton fields and hone their skills during the era that gave birth to the Delta Blues.
Our first neighborhood stop was at a classic shotgun-style house where Hoover and his wife Mary Ann created the Back in the Day Museum to replicate life in Baptist Town during the early 20th century.
Muted light from the open door and two side windows illuminated the museum interior and collections that preserve the stories of days gone by.
With no electricity and no running water, the tiny house reflected the hardships residents once endured.
Vintage vinyl 45s sat in silent stacks.
And when asked why portraits of the Kennedys were so prominently displayed in African American homes, Hoover replied, “They gave us hope.”
A canvas cotton sack was a vivid reminder of Baptist Town daily life. From sunup to sundown, pickers would drag the increasingly heavy sack between the rows, taking care not to cut their fingers on the razor-sharp cotton bolls.
Mr. Hoover led us outside and down Young Street, for a history lesson in Baptist Town’s musical heritage.
The most prominent blues legend to frequent Baptist Town was the King of the Delta Blues himself, Robert Johnson. Johnson would buy Prince Albert tobacco at the white-owned general store and later write his music on the brown paper bags.
A billboard marks the site of a white-owned juke joint where Robert Johnson performed. As a black man, he wasn’t allowed inside the establishment, so he would play outside on the street. The sign also indicates that Johnson died at this location, although there are multiple accounts of the events surrounding his death.
Baptist Town has two Academy Award-winning connections.
Although set in Jackson, many scenes from the 2011 motion picture The Help were shot on location in Greenwood. The house at the corner of McCain Street and Stephens Avenue was the home of Octavia Spencer’s character Minny Jackson.
Actor Morgan Freeman lived in Baptist Town for a time during his youth and graduated from Greenwood’s historical Broad Street High School in 1955.
Baptist Town is a primitive testament to Mississippi’s rich cultural heritage, and Sylvester Hoover keeps the memories alive through his Delta Blues Legend Tours.
A day earlier, while attending the media preview of the Two Mississippi Museums, we connected with Patrick Weems, co-founder and director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Patrick agreed to accompany us on our search and lead us to key locations from the tragic story.
Our search intensified just north of town at the point where Greenwood’s Grand Boulevard transitions into Money Road.
At a bend in the road we came upon the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church and cemetery. The history of this black congregation where Sylvester Hoover is a deacon dates to the late 1880s. The church was also a location for the motion picture The Help, but it is best known as a waypoint on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Like most of Robert Johnson’s life, his place of burial is also cloaked in mystery. There are three local sites marked as Johnson’s final resting place, but based on the testimony of Mrs. Rosie Eskridge, whose husband Tom dug the grave, sources agree this is most likely the actual location.
The headstone placed in 2000 bears an etching of a handwritten note by Robert Johnson that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.” The note is interpreted by many to be Johnson’s deathbed profession of faith, a redemptive contradiction of the fabled account that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
Fans leave an assortment of tokens at the gravesite symbolizing their unique connections to the King of the Delta Blues.
Some readers may recall the song Money Road from Roseanne Cash’s multi-Grammy Award-winning project The River & the Thread. The lyrics “One lies in the Zion yard / And one sleeps on the river bar / Neither one got very far / Out on Money Road” allude to the Robert Johnson and Emmett Till connection on the legendary roadway.
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The Legacy of Emmett Till
The death of a 14-year old black boy in rural Mississippi, and the courage of his grieving mother, are credited with giving birth to the modern Civil Rights Movement in 1955.
Delta locals hoped the story would fade away, but it was a story that would not die.
Through the years, countless scholars, historians, activists, and filmmakers have researched and documented their findings through various media.
Two headline-making events in recent years have pushed the story even further to the forefront. In 2016, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, opened with a memorial built around its acquisition of Emmett Till’s casket. And the publication of Timothy B. Tyson’s bestseller The Blood of Emmett Till in 2017 included a shocking admission by the boy’s accuser.
Back on Money Road, we drove seven miles north to the site where it all began.
Before putting him on the southbound train from Chicago, Emmett Till’s mother Mamie instructed her son about how to behave around white people in Mississippi. Emmett was to spend two weeks with his extended family at the home of his great-uncle Rev. Mose Wright.
But like most 14-year olds, Till found the pull of peer pressure stronger than his mother’s voice when he and a carload of cousins and friends pulled in front of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market on the evening of August 24. No one knows exactly what happened between Till and the 21-year old white storekeeper Carolyn Bryant, but most accounts agree that he gave a wolf whistle as the young people piled in the car and drove away.
Today, Bryant’s Grocery is a shell of its former self, having fallen into disrepair through the years. The storefront doors Emmett Till used that day have been preserved at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
Mose Wright Homeplace
In the early morning hours of August 28, Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy, his half-brother J. W. Milam, and two other men arrived at Mose Wright’s home on Whaley Road. The men abducted Emmett from his bed, drove him to multiple locations where they beat, mutilated, and ultimately shot him through the head.
Today Mose Wright’s homeplace is a vacant field.
Just beyond Wright’s homeplace we turned down a dirt road. There a cinderblock building formerly housed the East Money Church of God in Christ, where Mose was a member in 1955. Adjacent to that building are the fallen remains of a structure believed to be the former church where Wright pastored until 1949.
The day Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the river, it was nearly buried at the small church cemetery. In fact, his coffin was present and the grave was already dug when Mamie Till-Mobley’s uncle, accompanied by a sympathetic deputy, stopped the interment.
The Glendora Gin
We drove next to the historical village of Glendora.
In 1955, the M. B. Lowe cotton gin was located at a metal warehouse situated between J. W. Milam’s house and his brother-in-law’s grocery store where he worked part time. Milam and Bryant took a 75 lb. metal fan from the building and attached it with barbed wire to Emmett’s neck.
Today the metal building houses the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center. The rustic exterior belies the museum’s quality exhibits that not only interpret the tragic story of abduction and murder, but also pay tribute to the region’s agrarian history, local veterans, and native bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
While touring Glendora, we encountered three purple interpretive signs marking the locations of civil rights-related events. I recently learned that nine such signs funded by a donation from Morgan Freeman were erected in 2008 by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC) to complement the Tallahatchie Civil Rights Driving Tour.
Black Bayou Bridge
The abandoned Black Bayou Bridge on the outskirts of Glendora is believed to be the location where Bryant and Milam dumped Emmett Till’s body.
We parked at a safe distance and continued on foot.
Constructed in 1916, this single-lane concrete and steel structure spanning a backwater of the Tallahatchie River is the only surviving Warren pony truss bridge, of several built at the time.
The day was dark and the waters were muddy.
But the somber tone of our pilgrimage could not dampen the camaraderie of newfound friends and our shared commitment to the memory and legacy of a Mississippi martyr.
With so many mentions of “Tallahatchie” and a bridge, inquisitive minds may be wondering about the iconic structure from Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 #1 hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” As with other Delta legends, the exact locations of the bridge from the song lyrics, and the bridge from the 1976 motion picture adaptation, are hotly debated. The general consensus is that both bridges no longer exist due to collapse or replacement. That said, there are more than enough bridges over the Tallahatchie River to evoke memories of times past.
Bobbie Gentry attended high school in Greenwood, and her roadside marker on the Mississippi Country Music Trail is located at the bridge across the Yalobusha River just before Grand Boulevard becomes Money Road.
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The Graball Landing River Site
On August 31, three days after the abduction and murder, 17-year old Robert Hodges was running trotlines on the Tallahatchie River, when he noticed a pair of knees and feet protruding from the surface of the water.
As with many details of the case, there are conflicting reports regarding the exact site along the river where Emmett Till’s body was recovered. Hodges’ trial testimony states it was near the town of Philipp, the FBI reports a spot in LeFlore County, and locals insist it was at a spot called Graball Landing at the confluence of Black Bayou and the Tallahatchie River 1.3 miles downstream from the bridge.
We turned onto the dirt River Road and followed the route 2.6 miles along the east bank to the Grabell Landing site, as indicated by the purple interpretive sign on Sharkey Road.
The sign that once identified the river site is now stored at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. The bullet-ridden marker is only one of many Till memorials that have been vandalized, spray-painted, and even stolen over the years.
As Morgan Freeman’s character Hoke Colburn says in the 1989 Academy Award-winning motion picture Driving Miss Daisy, “Talk about things changing. They ain’t changed all that much.”
The bank of the Tallahatchie River is an ideal place for reflection, contemplation, and remembering the legacy of Emmitt Till.
On September 2, the body of Emmett Till arrived by train in Chicago. When his heartbroken mother saw his disfigured body, she made the decision to have an open-coffin funeral so the world could see the brutal effects of racism. Jet magazine published graphic photos of Till’s body in its September 15 edition, effectively showing the nation what thousands of mourners had witnessed.
The original casket and copy of Jet magazine are displayed in the Emmett Till Memorial at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC.
Tallahatchie County Courthouse
Daylight was fading as our pilgrimage led us to the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner where Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were tried for the murder of Emmett Till. Inquiring minds may be interested in reading the complete trial transcript.
Completed in 1910, the courthouse building replaced a 1903 structure destroyed by fire only five years after it was built.
Seemingly insignificant elements of the courthouse architecture, such as entryway tile and the clock tower dual staircase, bear silent witness to the cast of characters who filed in and out of the second floor courtroom for five days in the fall of 1955.
The media event surrounding the death and funeral of Emmett Till moved to Sumner’s courthouse square on September 19, 1955, when more than one hundred journalists flocked to town. Their dispatches from the trial made daily headlines in newspapers across the nation, and major television networks flew film nightly to New York from a temporary airfield in nearby Tutwiler.
Black reporters, segregated from their white colleagues, were seated at a separate table in the spectator section.
In 2014, the second floor courtroom underwent an extensive award-winning restoration. With a mission to preserve the space as a key site on the Till and greater civil rights landscape, the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors and the Emmett Till Memorial Commisssion (ETMC) created a living artifact by returning the courtroom to its 1955 appearance.
Although architecturally accurate, the pristine climate-controlled courtroom we toured is a far cry from the hot, humid, and smoke-filled environment during the trial.
The most courageous witness for the prosecution was Emmett’s great uncle Mose Wright. In fact, it may have been the first time a black man ever accused a white man of a crime in a Southern courtroom and lived. When asked to identify the men that had abducted his great-nephew, Wright stood, pointed to Milam and said, “There he is.” Then he also identified Bryant.
After the trial, Wright fled to Chicago, leaving most of his possessions behind, including a 1941 Ford and cotton in the fields.
It took the all-male, all-white jury about an hour of deliberation to return a not guilty verdict, a tradition that would continue into the 1960s at other such civil rights trials across the South.
The Breland & Whitten law office where Milam and Bryant were interviewed by journalist William Bradford Huie for his Look magazine article can be seen across West Court Street through the windows of the upstairs courtroom.
As we exited the courthouse, two silent silhouettes punctuated the darkening sky. One was a monument honoring the Tallahatchie Rifles, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. The other was the flag of Mississippi, the only state flag to include the Confederate battle flag, affirmed by a referendum and readopted by the state legislature in 2001.
On October 1, 2007, at a ceremony on the courthouse steps, the multi-racial ETMC committee issued a public apology from the citizens of Tallahatchie County to the Till family.
The statement affirmed that ” . . . racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth.”
Emmett Till Interpretive Center
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center, located cross North Court Street from the courthouse, is the educational arm of the ETMC.
The ETIC facilities house museum exhibits, archives, and art, and provide a meeting space for lectures, classes, and tours.
The interpretive center archives have an original issue of Look magazine’s January 24, 1956, edition where Huie’s article “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” was published.
Although this historic interview and article is a valued primary source, it is not without controversy. In this example of “checkbook journalism,” Look magazine paid $1,269 to the Breland & Whitten law firm and gave Milam and Bryant $3,150 each.
Acquitted at trial and with no fear of double jeopardy, the killers gave a detailed confession, essentially profiting from the murder of Emmett Till.
Certain omissions and fabricated details in the article have been widely challenged by Till scholars for decades.
Our Mississippi Delta pilgrimage has taught me firsthand that revisionist history exists, deliberate or otherwise.
Museum archives also house an original January 27, 1957, Look magazine that contains Huie’s follow-up piece “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” where Milam reveals how he and Bryant have been shunned by the community, and how all of the family-owned stores had to close as a result of a boycott by their black customers.
One-hour private tours of the interpretive center and courthouse are available by appointment only Monday through Sunday from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM for a $5 per person fee. Free 15-minute tours are available, as well.
To support the mission of ETIC, consider joining the Emmett Till Seed Project.
There are two downloadable brochures to help with planning a self-guided driving tour through the Delta. The Emmett Till National Site Development brochure gives an exciting overview of current initiatives. The Tallahatchie Civil Rights Driving Tour brochure was designed in association with the aforementioned purple signs, and while definitely helpful, inaccurate descriptions in both exist.
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There is no better way to authentically experience historical homelife in the Mississippi Delta than with a stay at Tallahatchie Flats.
“The Flats,” as locals call it, is a collection of six “sharecropper shacks” situated on the banks of the Tallahatchie River and bordered by cotton fields as far as the eye can see. When driving Money Road from Robert Johnson’s gravesite to Bryant’s Grocery, you will pass Tallahatchie Flats on the left.
All of the tenant houses were rescued from area plantations, and each house has a name and story of its own.
Jerry and I stayed in a 3-room house from Palo Alto Plantation in Minter City.
Ashleigh stayed in Nellie’s House, the former home of the family cook at Lakeview Plantation in Swiftown.
Although the houses retain their rustic character inside and out, each house has been retrofitted with indoor plumbing, heat, air conditioning, and a fully functional kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, and microwave.
Period furnishings and decor allow guests to experience a taste of 1940s rural Mississippi.
The Tallahatchie Tavern hosts occasional live music nights and is available for private parties and special events.
Travelers to the Delta can book a flat or event with convenient online reservations.
A Reflection on Heritage Tourism
We arrived at “The Flats” long after dark. We had walked in the rain, tromped through mud, and driven deep into the countryside to deliver a stranded local named Linda to her next ride. It was out of our way, but her running commentary kept us in stitches!
Looking back, I would describe the day as atmospheric, gritty, and surreal, leaving us exhausted and looking like ragamuffins.
And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Heritage tourism, as defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”
I realize heritage tourism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I would choose it over an all-inclusive beach resort or theme park any day.
Follow this link to access my personal photos from A Mississippi Delta Pilgrimage.
Backroad Planet Collaborations with Ashleigh Coleman
If you love Ashleigh Coleman’s photography, you will want to check out her previous collaborations with Backroad Planet.
The day before we drove into the Delta, we attended a preview of two Mississippi museums: the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The itinerary also includes visits to the Smith Robertson Museum, the home of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, the James Beard Award-winning Bully’s Restaurant, and the Mississippi Supreme Court.
In her first guest post on Backroad Planet, Ashleigh shared her intimate connection with the ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi with haunting images from a bridal shoot and a seasonal flood.
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever explored the Mississippi Delta? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!
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