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Proposed Emmett Till museum lost in Burr Oak scandal

7-9-09 Burr Oak Cemetery. 4400 West 127Th Street. Alsip Illinois. Chicago Sun-Times Exclusive The original coffEmmett Till was found Burr

7-9-09 Burr Oak Cemetery. 4400 West 127Th Street. Alsip, Illinois. Chicago Sun-Times Exclusive The original coffin of Emmett Till was found at Burr Oak Cemetery Thursday afternoon in an old run down work area. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2011 11:15AM

While sorting through old records in the Burr Oak cemetery office, employees found a handful of old brochures asking for donations to the “Emmett Till Historical Museum and Mausoleum.”

Former manager Carolyn Towns, sentenced Friday to 12 years in prison for dismembering a corpse and theft, wanted to build a museum on the grounds where Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, are buried.

That’s what she promised Mrs. Mobley.

“We have so much history here, and we want to highlight all the prominent African Americans buried at the cemetery,” Towns said in 2004.

But Towns’ arrest two years ago halted any plans she made to build a museum for Till and his mother in the historic black cemetery near Alsip. It wasn’t clear during the Cook County sheriff’s investigation at the cemetery how much money Towns ever collected for any Emmett Till memorial.

And no one since in Till’s hometown ­— where he was raised and buried, where his mother put his mutilated face on display for the world to see ­­— has publicly discussed any kind of memorial. Till’s glass-topped casket entrusted to Towns was found in a shed, hosting a family of possums.

The casket was sent, at his family’s request, to Washington, D.C., to await the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

There are just a few memorials in the area acknowledging the Chicago son whose lynching in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement.

His grave remains untouched in the middle of the Burr Oak cemetery, covered by a flat copper plate. A little stretch of 71st Street at South St. Lawrence Street in Chicago and his former elementary school are named for him.

“It is a sad commentary that this is his hometown,” said Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who was with him in August 1955 when he whistled, and when he was taken away. “Even in the place that he was killed, they’re building a memorial to him.”

Tallahatchie County, Miss., is restoring the courthouse where an all-white jury acquitted two white men of the murder of the black Chicago teen. Local authorities have tried to buy and preserve the store in Money, Miss., where Till whistled at a white woman, the crime that cost him his life.

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission of Tallahatchie County mapped out a driving tour brochure of more than a dozen sites from the Till case. And the state renamed a prominent 38-mile stretch of U.S. highway from Tutwiler to Greenwood in honor of Till.

It’s very progressive of Mississippi ­­to commemorate its past transgressions, said Joy Bivins, a curator at the Chicago History Museum.

So here, she said, his family’s homes in Summit Argo and the West Woodlawn community should be added to neighborhood tours or marked. The only Till site on the local historical registry is Roberts Temple Church of God, where his body was viewed by thousands.

Till matters nationally, she said, because he showed the rest of the country the legacy of racial violence Southern black families had been dealing with for decades.

And his mother wanted his story remembered, said filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who made the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” that got the FBI to reopen the murder case in 2004.

“She really wanted a mausoleum and a museum,” Beauchamp said. “She really wanted something to recognize the legacy of her son in history.”

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