CHICAGO — Last week marked what would have been Emmett Till’s 80th birthday had he not been killed by a group of white men in Mississippi in 1955.
The 14-year-old Black teen was murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman at a grocery store. The crime shocked the senses and shined a spotlight on the racial violence against Black people in the Jim Crow south.
The church where his funeral service was held has long been an important part of Black history, and more than six decades later, there are renewed efforts to preserve the church that changed the civil rights movement.
“So, the balcony was like a square, so it went from the pulpit. There was a choir stand all the way around,” explained Sharon Roberts.
Roberts grew up in the south side of Chicago church.
“This is kind of where the church started. My great grandfather built this," she said.
When her great grandfather built the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, it was the first of its kind in the Midwest and intended to be a place to heal.
“He came here to start Robert’s Temple, a holiness church. It wasn't heard of back then and it was needed for what they called a wicked city here in Chicago,” said Roberts, who is now the church secretary and in charge with preservation efforts.
The halls are adorned with images of decades past.
But it was the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager, in Mississippi in 1955 that thrust this house of God into the history books.
“The unfortunate death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was accused of whistling at a white woman down in Mississippi, visiting his family and friends down there, was taken in the middle of the night by the husband and friends of this woman," Roberts recalled.
The men were charged with viciously beating the teen, lynching him, and tying him to a cotton gin before throwing his body into a river.
“So, right here, back when there were about 40 stairs, a staircase to come from downstairs up. And that's where his casket was brought up and laid here,” said Roberts.
His mother, a member of Roberts Temple, brought him back to Chicago for the funeral. The service drew some 50,0000 visitors. It was a galvanizing moment.
“His mother was very, very certain that she wanted an open casket so the world could see what had happened to her son.”
The church was recently added to America’s 11 most endangered historic places list.
So, last month when the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced more than $3 million in grants to 40 sites and organizations through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, Roberts Temple church was at the top of the list.
“Our top awardee this year is Robert's Temple,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Leggs says the grant was an important opportunity to elevate the many ways that Black women have contributed to civil rights.
“Emmett Till's mother in 1955, when she made the decision to have an open-casket funeral that not only showcased and demonstrated her character, her self-determination, her activism, but it was a catalytic moment in the American civil rights movement,” Roberts said.
To restore the building and reimagine its use, Roberts says they will take the building back in time.
“This is just, it's unbelievable because this will be the first phase of preserving a historic place. So, we'll start there. And then our goal is to transform, renovate, restore the church back to 1955,” said Roberts.
Beyond restoring the church to what it looked like during Emmett Till’s funeral, they hope to gain national landmark status as well.
“We're just happy to still be here for the community. We're small in number, very small membership, but we're mighty and we plan to be here forever," Roberts said.
It’s an opportunity to preserve the past for the future.