In the early morning of August 28, 1955, Emmett Till was abducted and murdered in Money, Mississippi. Plaques marking the people, places, and events surrounding the killing of the 14-year-old African American and the subsequent trial have been vandalized since their installation in 2007: sprayed with bullets, scraped of their words, and even uprooted and thrown in the nearby river. In 2014, Dave Tell of the University of Kansas and Patrick Weems of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission launched the Emmett Till Memory Project to respond to these acts of vandalism by creating digital memorials that could not be defaced.
The collaboration began after a chapter of Tell’s dissertation began to circulate among activists in the Mississippi Delta. Weems and local community organizers and historians invited Tell to the the area. “It was a transformative trip for me,” Tell says—including engagement with significant people and places from the abduction and murder of Emmett Till.
“What was going on then, the big anxiety was after 50 years of silence… the state of Mississippi was finally putting up roadside markers and doing work to commemorate the memory of Emmett Till. But no sooner would they put a sign up than it would be stolen or shot with bullet holes or thrown in the river,” Tell continues. “There was this anxiety about how we can commemorate these sites in a way that’s relatively vandal proof. That was combined with another problem, that the community organizers doing the work in the Delta didn’t have the historical background to be able to tell the nuance of the story.”
Phase 1: A Prototype in Partnership with Google
While Tell was touring the Mississippi Delta, his hosts suggested creating a five-site GPS-enabled mobile app to tell Till’s story. Tell made contact with Google, which at the time owned Field Trip—an app that alerts users to sites of interests in their immediate vicinity.
“They said, we’ll do this, but we need you to have 50 sites and not 5 sites. So I went back down there and worked with Patrick Weems,” Tell explained. “Patrick and I spent two weeks driving around the Delta, talking to people, and figuring out what could be sites we could use. Lo and behold, we came up with these fifty sites. For sure, some of them are rather distant from the Till story. Including them was the cost of getting our prototype on Google.”
The prototype content is currently available through the Field Trip app in Google Play and the App Store, while Tell and the team plan the Emmett Till Memory Project’s next phase.
What’s Next for the Emmett Till Memory Project
In the project’s next phase, Tell envisions a more curated experience that is designed not only to store site-specific information, but to provide a true humanities experience: to engage users to think and weigh competing evidence.
“We want to take people to just 10 sites, that number is important. At each we want to provide the narrative of Till’s murder as it was experienced at that site,” Tell explains. “A person standing near the courthouse will get the jury’s version of the story. A person standing in Mound Bayou where the Black press stayed will get their version of the story. The idea here is that the work in memory studies tells us that if we just create an electronic repository of knowledge, people will check it when they’re curious but they won’t really engage with it. Whereas, we’re trying to make something that will provoke public engagement, ask people to think about the story instead of resolve it for them too quickly.”
To that end, Tell is working with the Digital Public Library of America to collect archival primary sources to share with users at different sites.
“Someone at the courthouse could download a copy of the jury transcript. Someone in Mound Bayou could download some of the original Black press articles,” Tell says. “We’re not trying to confuse people by shifting the story, we’re trying to give them materials they can work with and think with as they engage Till’s story.”
This version of the mobile app will build on lessons learned from the Field Trip prototype. Reducing the number of sites will enable Tell and his team to better control the user experience, mapping out every possible route to ensure that each user experiences Till’s story from a variety of perspectives. “Even if they just visit 2 sites—which is a pretty good possibility,” Tell says, “we’re still going to be able to ensure that they see the shifting story, they have access to different documents, and they really get a rich sense of what happened in 1955.”
It will also enable Tell to tailor the app to the project’s needs. The Field Trip app alerts users as they drive past significant locations. “It’s not designed to take you to things,” Tell notes. “Unless you already know where you’re going, it’s going to be hard for the general tourist to use Field Trip.” Tell envisions an app that will truly engage, encouraging users to visit, to look, and the think.