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Professor receives NEH fellowship for Emmett Till research

Thursday, January 14, 2016

LAWRENCE – The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a fellowship to a University of Kansas professor for his research on the murder of Emmett Till.

Dave Tell, associate professor of communication studies, will receive $50,400 to support a book project that explores how questions of geography and race have altered the memory of Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was beaten and shot to death in the Mississippi Delta for whistling at a white woman.

“Dave deserves hearty congratulations on this honor. His research has great potential to advance the conversation on a case that has remained newsworthy for decades,” said Don Steeples, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at KU.

The easiest way to appreciate the role of race and geography in the memory of Emmett Till, Tell explains, is simply to look at the published maps of Till’s murder.

Every map of Till’s murder published between 1956 and 2007 misplaced the murder site by 16.5 miles. Moreover, the same writers who misplaced Till’s murder also suggested that Till was killed, not primarily because he was black, but because the state of Mississippi was under fire from the NAACP. In 2007, when the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC) published the first accurate map of Till’s murder since 1955, they also argued that Till was killed first and foremost because he was black. Despite all that separated the ETMC from earlier Till mapmakers, all shared the basic conviction that race, geography and memory moved in tandem. One could not, it seems, remember the race of Emmett Till without moving the murder site.

Tell’s book, “Remembering Emmett Till,” focuses on the three geographic regions through which Till’s murder has been given meaning: the state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta, and Tallahatchie County. As the scale of Till’s murder shifts from the state to the Delta to the county, the basic geographic facts of the case have been altered and the role of race has been called into question.

The book complements another project Tell has worked on. He and partners have created the Emmett Till Memory Project, a smartphone app dedicated to Till’s memory. Supported by KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities, the project uses a GPS-enabled app called Field Trip to commemorate 50 sites in and around the Mississippi Delta, each of which plays a significant role in the memory of Emmett Till’s murder. Information on the project is available at http://tillmemoryproject.com/.

Tell has been recognized by the National Communication Association with the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award and the Gerald R. Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. Tell joined KU in 2007. He completed his doctorate in communication arts and sciences at The Pennsylvania State University in 2006. Numerous national journals have published his work.

Since 1998, KU faculty have received 22 fellowships from the NEH. The NEH also selected a project from the Kansas African Studies Center for funding in the same award cycle. A $140,000 grant will help the center launch public discussions, community programming and create educational resources in local communities to discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding recent demographic changes in the region. KU is the only university in the state to receive NEH funding in this cycle.

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced this month $21.8 million in grants for 295 humanities projects.

The Department of Communication Studies is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which encourages learning without boundaries in its more than 50 departments, programs and centers. Through innovative research and teaching, the College emphasizes interdisciplinary education, global awareness and experiential learning. It is the broadest and most diverse academic unit at the University of Kansas. 

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