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App allows users to retrace pivotal moment in civil rights history

Thursday, February 11, 2016

LAWRENCE – As the country marks Black History Month, the story of one of the most pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement is now accessible through an app.

The Emmett Till Memory Project uses Field Trip, a smartphone app produced by Niantic Labs, to commemorate 50 sites in and around the Mississippi Delta that played a significant role in the memory of Till’s murder.

“The app takes the commemoration of Emmett Till to places it has never been,” said Dave Tell, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.  

Tell worked with partners in Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Florida to commemorate 14-year-old Till’s brutal death in 1955 and the subsequent trial that failed to convict two men who later confessed to the murder in a Look magazine article. Till’s death is often cited as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. In a video from 2015, Tell talks about the project and importance of commemorating Till's death. 

The app includes dozens of sites that have been left unmarked in previous commemoration projects of Till’s death. Among the newly identified sites are the barn in which Till was tortured and killed, the home where Till’s mother lodged during the trial and from which civil rights activist Medgar Evers set out to do undercover research in Mississippi cotton fields and an out-of-the way juke joint where activists met to discuss commemorating Till’s death.

"You do not need to be in Mississippi to use the app," Tell said. "While the app will allow anyone to take a self-guided tour of the Delta, the photographs, maps and explanations can be accessed anyone anywhere."

The historical sites included in the Emmett Till Memory Project can be accessed on Field Trip under the Historical Places and Events section. It can also be accessed on The Emmett Till Memory Project website. For those traveling through the Mississippi Delta, the app uses GPS technology to alert smartphone users that they are near a site that connects to the project. Each site includes original photographs, GPS coordinates and an analysis of the site’s relevance to Till’s death.

For example, if users are standing next to the Delta Inn in Sumner, Mississippi, where the all-white jury was housed, they would learn what the jury believed about Till’s death and how the jury reached their decision to acquit the murderers. Or, if users were near King’s Place, a black dance hall in Glendora, Mississippi, they would learn how the black press discovered the true story of Till’s murder.

“By moving around the Delta, a smartphone user will not simply learn the facts of Till’s murder, they will also learn about the politics of Till’s commemoration. Why, for example, the black press pedaled one story and the white jury another,” Tell said.

On the project, Tell collaborated with Patrick Weems, director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi; Christian Spielvogel, a digital humanities research associate at Pennsylvania State University; Pablo Correa, a doctoral student and photographer at Florida State University; and Davis Houck, a communication and information professor at Florida State University. A Scholars on Site award from the KU Hall Center for the Humanities supported the project.

The next step in the project is to create content for Google Expeditions, which provides virtual field trips for elementary school students.

This winter, Tell received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship award for a book project that will explore how questions of geography and race have altered the memory of Emmett Till. 

Photo: Tallahatchie County courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the Emmett Till murder trial took place.


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