Nearly fifty years passed between the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and its first public commemoration in the Mississippi Delta. When the memorials finally emerged, so too did accounts of a long-enforced silence. In her gripping memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody says that she was haunted by Till’s murder, but never allowed to speak of it openly. 1 Outside the Delta, Till’s story was passed down by writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Nordan, and it figured prominently in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” speech in Detroit in June 1963 (though not in the more famous version delivered two months later in Washington). But in the place where it occurred, Till’s murder was seldom discussed publicly. 2 Architectural historian Dell Upton observes that even as the civil rights movement began to be commemorated across the South in the 1970s, memorials were concentrated in “Alabama, Georgia, and other places where the great, telegenic mass demonstrations were held, rather than, say, in Mississippi, the scene of quieter, less visible efforts and of more sinister, more random, and less restrained violence.” 3
In 2005, the silence was broken with two blue roadside markers designating a 30-mile stretch of Highway 49E as the “Emmett Till Memorial Highway.” In the years that followed, the Delta experienced an unprecedented memory boom. More than $5 million was spent on the production of a significant commemorative infrastructure, including dozens of roadside markers, a museum, two restored buildings, an interpretive center, a walking park, and a community building. These works are unevenly distributed, ideologically inconsistent, and frequently vandalized, and yet they ensure that, at last, the memory of Till’s murder has a material presence in the landscape of the Mississippi Delta.
When the memorials finally emerged, so too did accounts of a long-enforced silence…. There is a world of patronage, nepotism, and enduring racism behind the surface of those historical markers.
While seemingly major parts of Till’s story (such as his murder site) have gone uncommemorated, relatively minor elements have been affectively charged. Where was Till’s body dropped in the water? Where was it recovered? From where was the gin fan stolen that weighted his body in the river? If these questions have been debated with an intensity out of proportion with their historical significance, it’s because the economic well-being of entire towns hinges on the answers given. As Till’s story is passed down through generations, its plot is shaped by the conditions of remembrance in the Delta as much as by the distant facts of 1955. Now the story is in the hands of the legislators, county supervisors, funding boards, nonprofit organizations, private foundations, small-town mayors, anonymous citizens, ex-cons, and mid-level bureaucrats who oversee the new commemorative works. There is a world of controversy, patronage, nepotism, and enduring racism behind the surface of those historical markers.
Some controversies are fueled by forensic debates over what precisely happened to Emmett Till. Others are motivated by the simple fact that stories of Till’s death are one of the few Delta commodities not controlled by agribusiness. And in many cases, the desperate pursuit of revenue has fueled an even more desperate creativity with Till’s story, unsettling the plotline of a murder that was ambiguous from the start. By studying this commemorative infrastructure and its controversial appearance on the landscape of the Delta, we can see with a newfound clarity how race, place, and memory work through one another — and how they are transformed in the process. 4
The Freedom Trail
In 2011, the Tourism Division of the Mississippi Development Authority announced the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, commemorating 25 places that played a significant role in the state’s civil rights history. Today these sites are marked by cast aluminum signs, mounted on seven-foot posts, with an oval-shaped crest emerging from the top. The front features a raised-letter surface; the back is a printed, black-vinyl sheet with explanatory text and photographs. At a cost of $8,000 apiece, the signs were designed by Hammons and Associates, a graphic design firm in Greenwood, and cast by Sewah Studios in Ohio.
My point in rehearsing these details is that none of them — from the post height to the crest shape to the local design firm or distant industrial forge — were developed for commemorating the civil rights movement. They were borrowed from the well-established practice of blues commemoration in the Mississippi Delta, a massively successful experiment in tourism and economic development. Indeed, the Freedom Trail was originally proposed as an extension of blues commemoration. 5 The design recalls the circular crest of the Blues Trail signs, which replicated the shape of an LP vinyl record.
In any case, the tourism boosters who created the Freedom Trail were convinced that the most important of these 25 sites was Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi — the country store where Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant on August 24, 1955, three days before her husband, Roy Bryant, and an unknown number of accomplices snatched the fourteen-year-old boy from his uncle’s home, tortured him, shot him, attached his body to a cotton-gin fan with a length of barbed wire, and sank him in the river. 6 From the perspective of the Mississippi Development Authority, the “murder and funeral of Emmitt [sic] Till” was “the genesis of the [civil rights] movement, giving Rosa Parks the strength to sit down and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. the courage to stand up.” In a symbolic gesture, the ruins of the abandoned store were designated as the starting place of the Freedom Trail. Surviving members of the Till family joined veterans of the Mississippi freedom struggle in a ceremony to unveil the first trail marker. 7
That might seem strange to people who remember coverage of the murder trial in September 1955, where focusing on the grocery store was a racist strategy used by defense lawyers to get Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam acquitted. Prosecutors argued that the plotline of the murder began at the site of the abduction, the homestead of Till’s uncle Moses Wright on Dark Fear Road. By starting their story at the Wright residence, three days after the events at the grocery, prosecutors were trying to keep Till away from Carolyn Bryant, keep Bryant herself from testifying, and thereby avoid the suggestion of a “justifiable homicide” — the notion that murder could be a fitting punishment for a black boy who insulted a white woman. Defense lawyers argued, rather, that the events of Bryant’s Grocery formed the “essential background for a later happening.” Judge Curtis Swango ruled in their favor and allowed Bryant to tell her story, and although she would later confess that this was a lie, she testified in court that Till forcibly held her hand, asked her for a date, grabbed both of her hips, and propositioned her with “unprintable words.” 8 The judge dismissed the jurors during this testimony, but they got the gist of it. Nine of the twelve later confided that they voted to acquit not because they believed the men were innocent (they did not) and not because they doubted the identity of the body (which was the open argument of the defense), but rather because of what happened at Bryant’s Grocery. “The simple fact was that a Negro had insulted a white woman. Her husband would not be prosecuted for killing him.” 9
Today few people remember the debate about whether the store should be considered the origin point of Emmett Till’s murder. The processes of commemoration have changed the meaning of the store, and the old racially charged geography that enabled his killers to go free is now advanced by the Mississippi Development Authority and put in the service of the state’s “epic struggle for equality.” 10 The moment the Freedom Trail sign went up, it was no longer racist to say that the murder began at the store.
The Forensic Tradition
Not insignificantly, the ruins of that grocery store are owned by the children of Ray Tribble, an unrepentant juror from the 1955 trial. 11 The family also owns the beautifully restored Ben Roy’s Service Station, immediately to the south. After the trial, Ray Tribble excelled in business. He and his family bought farmland around Money, and in the mid-1980s purchased the two-story building that once housed Bryant’s Grocery. By 2003, when two of the children acquired the gas station, the family owned everything in Money except the Baptist church. 12
Perhaps hesitant to let the crumbling grocery store become a monument to their patriarch’s complicity, the Tribbles have rejected numerous offers to buy the property and have allowed it to fall into ruin. 13 The iconic front porch collapsed in the early 1990s, the interior floors were gone by the end of the decade, and Hurricane Katrina claimed the roof and a large part of the north wall. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the store draws an ever-increasing number of tourists who want to see the place at which many believe an ill-timed whistle set in motion the civil rights movement. It seems the greater the ruin, the more potent the memory site. 14
The ruins of Bryant’s Grocery are owned by the children of Ray Tribble, an unrepentant juror who helped acquit the storekeeper.
A mere 67 feet away, Ben Roy’s Service Station has followed a different trajectory. Although it has no historic connection to Emmett Till’s murder, since 2011 it has been actively written into his story. Two months after the Freedom Trail ceremony at the grocery store, Tribble’s children won a Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites grant to restore the gas station, reasoning that its covered portico was a good place for tourists to gaze at the grocery and learn civil rights history. That was apparently enough for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to give $206,360.80 earmarked for civil rights to the restoration of Ben Roy’s Service Station. And thus, both buildings are now inescapably a part of Till’s story. 15
After the trial, black sharecroppers refused to patronize Bryant’s Grocery, and it was almost immediately put up for sale. 16 It remained a country store for the next three decades, known as Wolfe’s, then as Young’s Grocery and Market, but it is still remembered as Bryant’s, thanks to the historians who have normalized the legal narrative established by the defense at the murder trial. From William Bradford Huie, to Steven Whitaker, to Stephen J. Whitfield, to Devery Anderson, to Timothy B. Tyson — for 60 years the most influential voices shaping Till’s story have begun their narratives at Bryant’s Grocery. 17
That’s not to say that historians believed Carolyn Bryant’s testimony or endorsed the suggestion of a justifiable homicide. The opposite is rather the case. While the inclusion of Bryant’s Grocery in Till’s story is no longer controversial, questions about what precisely happened there are as all-consuming as they were in the 1955. Did Till really assault Carolyn Bryant? Did he proposition her? Did he whistle at her? These are forensic questions, focused on determining precisely what happened, and they are the definitive model for Emmett Till commemoration. The most recent, most comprehensive, and most respected scholarship on the Till murder is motivated by an ever-more-determined investigation to figure out what happened inside the store.
Tribble’s children won a grant to restore the gas station next door, reasoning that its portico was a good place for tourists to gaze at the grocery and learn civil rights history.
Consider Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till (2015), currently the authoritative history of the murder. Seven years before the book was released, Anderson published a detective entry in Southern Quarterly titled “A Wallet, a White Woman, and a Whistle: Fact and Fiction in Emmett Till’s Encounter in Money, Mississippi.” The book tellingly ends with a long appendix, “Piecing the Puzzle,” which provides a question-and-answer guide to the most controversial elements of the murder. Anderson proceeds as if a detailed ledger of misdeeds exhausts the obligations of memory. He even divides his extensive list of sources by their proximity to 1955: primary sources are considered in main text, while secondary sources are relegated to footnotes. 18
The most recent forensic pursuit is Timothy Tyson’s acclaimed The Blood of Emmett Till (2017). That project began in 2008, when Carolyn Bryant contacted Tyson and told him that she had lied under oath about what happened in Bryant’s Grocery, and specifically about her testimony that she was assaulted: “That part’s not true.” 19 Tyson then rewrote the story of Emmett Till based on a new account of the events at Bryant’s Grocery.
Although these two books are very different, together they demonstrate how strongly the forensic approach to commemoration has taken hold. While Anderson and Tyson circle continuously around Bryant’s Grocery, they never feature the store itself. The grocery was the site of their inquiry and even the inspiration for it, but not the object of their inquiry. The only relevant questions were who did what to whom? How can guilt, blame, victimhood, and responsibility be distributed?
The placelessness of the forensic tradition is evident, too, in the histories written by people who visited the store in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, when it was owned by J. L. “Bud” and Rita Young. We know little about the proprietors except that they kept a country store in the building that once housed Bryant’s Grocery. This simple act, however, had profound commemorative ramifications. In good repair, the building itself attracted zero attention, allowing those who visited it to become entirely absorbed in forensics. It’s startling how many people could visit Young’s and call it Bryant’s — as if the material history of the place were unrelated to questions of commemoration.
For example, Richard Rubin’s Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South (2002) purports to be the true story of the year he spent in Greenwood, Mississippi, just a few miles south of Money, in 1988. A native New Yorker with an Ivy-League history degree, the recent graduate headed south to work for the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper. It was to be a personal adventure. From his perspective, the Mississippi Delta was “pure mystery, an abyss at the bottom of America.” 20 The book’s title refers to Rubin’s sense that he could not get along in Delta society unless he kept his progressive racial views to himself. Silence, he suggested, was the cost of admission for a liberal. Needless to say, this is the kind of book Deltans have learned to distrust: a northerner dropping in to tell them how racist they are. 21
Rubin was “fascinated with the murder of Emmett Till,” and he returns to it throughout the book. In 1987, as a junior in college, he had seen Eyes on the Prize, the celebrated six-hour documentary that stressed the role of Till’s murder in sparking the civil rights movement. Rubin was captivated by Till’s story, and he developed a “burning desire” to visit Mississippi for himself. He became preoccupied with Bryant’s Grocery and visited the store “every few weeks” during the fall of 1988. The store was still open, he wrote, selling Vienna sausages, sardines, and deviled ham. He would park across the street from Young’s Grocery and “just stare at it for a few minutes,” before slowly making his way toward the entrance, while speculating about what happened inside. He would examine the front porch where, he claimed, Till bragged about his biracial sexual prowess. Then Rubin would “saunter on into the store itself and greet the clerk behind the counter.” This, he reports, was so much “meaningless conversation,” a cover for the author’s silent forensic calculations: “she stood there, a little to the left, probably, and he stood here, right on this spot where I am right now.” 22
We know that Rubin’s story is fabricated, because Young’s had been closed for at least three years when he arrived in 1988. He would have found the porch sagging and no longer enclosed, the sign gone, the windows broken or missing. Rubin, however, could not admit the extent of the damage. His fiction required an inhabitable store, so that he could forget its material status and focus on the forensic questions. He even occasionally seemed to forget that the building itself had changed hands. This is nowhere clearer than in his fictional one-person boycott of Young’s Grocery. He claims that he would leave without buying anything — as a protest against Bryant’s! “I did not wish to patronize the place, no matter what it was called these days.” The ownership had become literally interchangeable, which was only possible because Rubin so completely disregarded the building and its history. 23
Only after the Tribbles bought the store from the Youngs and let it fall into ruin did the building itself come to the foreground of historians’ attention. 24 The conspicuous disrepair of such an important place (Ray Tribble’s daughter, Annette Morgan, called it the most historic site in the country) seemed to signify that the events of 1955 had been ignored and untended. Visitors began to see the murder of Emmett Till in light of persistent racism in the Mississippi Delta, effectively extending the chronology of Till’s story. Just as a decade’s worth of pilgrims visited Young’s store and misnamed it Bryant’s, a subsequent generation visited the Tribble building and found it haunted. Ruins, Mary Carruthers observed in a different context, “all but [shout] that they have been preserved for the chastisement of future generations.” The more the store crumbles, the greater the evidence of unaddressed racism mounts. 25
Like the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery, tales of Till’s murder are ignored but not erased. The more obvious the neglect, the more urgently the ruins discharge their commemorative function.
By 2000, when Paul Hendrickson profiled the building for a Washington Post article titled “Mississippi Haunting,” the floors were completely gone. In contrast to those who visited the store during the Young era, Hendrickson focused on the building itself. He described the broken plate glass, the rafters fallen to the foundation, and the rodents scurrying among the debris. A second-story toilet, still bolted to the brick wall, hung suspended in space, “with only air beneath, a ludicrous sight.” While Hendrickson found the ruins beautiful, he wrote, “beauty of the building has to do with its look of extreme fragility. A good cough would knock it over.” To his mind, the ruins were a poignant commentary on the uncommemorated murder and an indictment of bigotry in the contemporary Delta. “There is no plaque from a state historical commission,” he wrote, which seemed to confirm the obvious meaning of the ruins: Emmett Till’s legacy was ignored and abandoned. 26
And yet, for Hendrickson, that was only half of the story. Despite the material evidence of neglect, the building still gestured to the facts of 1955. This is why he had come to Money, he wrote, “why I’m standing now on this spot. I am trying to dream my way into the brutal murder of Emmett Till. I am trying to imagine what some of it was like.” Imagine it he did. After contemplating the ruins, Hendrickson proceeded to cover the same ground as earlier writers — the whistle, the alleged violation of sexual taboos, the kidnapping, torture, and death. But this was not simply an opportunity to rehearse the facts of the murder. Hendrickson was attuned to the symbolic complexity of the ruins and saw in them both a call to memory and evidence that the call had been ignored. 27
The same patterns play out across the Delta. Like the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery, tales of Till’s murder are ignored but never erased from the cultural landscape. The longer they are ignored, the more obvious the neglect becomes; and yet, the more obvious the neglect, the more urgently the ruins discharge their commemorative function. In 2003, Hendrickson republished his article as the prologue to Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, where the title shifted from “Mississippi Haunting” to “Nothing Is Ever Escaped.” 28
The Tribbles are, in effect, holding the building hostage. ‘They just want history to die.’
In 2007, Robert Jenkins, a community development expert from Virginia, learned of the neglected store on a business trip to Jackson. He offered to buy the property and restore it, only to be rebuffed by the Tribble family, who, he claims, proposed selling the bricks one by one to African Americans. One year later, a local insurance agent named Billy Walker was so embarrassed by the ruins (“a disgrace” to the local community) that he, too, tried to buy the store. Neil Padden, a Nashville businessman with connections to Congressman John Lewis, offered six figures in 2010 but could not close the deal. 29 As Sherron Wright (the great-niece of Moses Wright) summed up the situation, by not selling the store, the Tribbles are, in effect, holding the building hostage. “They just want history to die,” she said. 30
In 2009, two residents of Jackson, a retired businessman and a doctor, visited the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery on a tour of civil rights sites organized by the Mississippi Center for Justice. Months later, they set up a dinner with their tour guide at the legendary Mississippi blues joint Po’ Monkey’s to ask what could be done about commemorating the site. By the time they had finished their beers, $4,000 had changed hands. While the full story of how that initial gift grew into the larger project of the Mississippi Freedom Trail is too complex to relay here, the essential point is that it started with the haunting power of the ruins.
Since its installation in 2011, the Mississippi Freedom Trail marker has accentuated the symbolic power of Bryant’s Grocery. The sign emphasizes, if not exaggerates, the site’s historical importance, framing it as the origin point of the American civil rights movement, and that makes its disregard more palpable. In June 2017, the Freedom Trail sign was vandalized, the black vinyl either erased with acid or scraped from the aluminum with a blunt instrument. Although it was quickly replaced, the vandalized sign was a perfect analogue to the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery. Journalist Jamil Smith saw this clearly, tweeting that the vandal “tried to, quite literally, erase history.” 31 Tried to, but could not. Attempts to erase Till’s story become part of the story itself. The ruined store ensures that when Till is remembered today, the Delta’s will-to-forget is remembered as well.
Which brings us back to the countermemorial of Ben Roy’s Service Station, whose 2014 restoration was funded by a Mississippi Civil Rights Historic Sites grant, a one-time initiative coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The program also funded preservation projects like the Mississippi Freedom Trail, the headquarters of the Council of Federated Organizations in Meridian, the Medgar Evers house in Jackson, the Amzie Moore house in Cleveland, the Vernon Dahmer house in Hattiesburg, and the second-district Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner (home of the Till trial). In fact, Ben Roy’s was the only funded project that was not a civil rights site.
Importantly, the MCRHS grant program was nested under a state congressional bill supporting projects demonstrating “the state’s attractiveness as a tourism destination.” 32 Thus, the same bill that funded civil rights commemoration also funded a horse show on the Gulf Coast, renovations to the home of Elvis Presley, and the restoration of the home of Confederate icon J. Z. George, who signed the ordinance of succession, defended the disenfranchisement of African Americans, and backed the racist state constitution of 1890. With tourism as the ultimate driver of state funding, the capacity of Ben Roy’s to attract visitors was just as important as its link to the civil rights movement. Indeed, in the case of Ben Roy’s, the potential to attract tourists was its link to the civil rights movement. Mary Annette Morgan (granddaughter of Ray Tribble and the family’s grant writer) used the indiscriminate movement of tourists between the two buildings to state her claim for civil rights money:
In this day and age, tourists to Mississippi and to the Delta region want to get “off-the-beaten-path.” They want to experience history hands-on and see places where events took place and where legends lived and died. Today, without any investment in the site, hundreds of visitors travel to the site just to see the ruins of the Bryant Grocery building and to experience the nostalgia of small town Money. Just imagine if we could make Money, Mississippi more of a destination, instead of just a disappearing ghost town. How many more visitors would travel to Money if there was actually some type of cultural center for them to see and to experience? 33
Remember, the gas station was not the site “where events took place.” Nor did “hundreds of visitors” travel there. These claims could be true only if Ben Roy’s and Bryant’s Grocery were counted as the same site.
The lead architect on the project was the Greenwood firm of Beard and Riser. Dale Riser wrote portions of the grant application and helped Morgan build her case that tourism could provide Ben Roy’s with a retroactive civil rights history:
It is not inconceivable, in fact it is very likely, that the events that transpired at Bryant’s Grocery on that day in August of 1955 were discussed underneath the front canopy of the adjacent service station; rehabilitating that service station will allow new and future generations of Mississippians, Americans, and others to meet under that canopy and discuss the events surrounding the death of Emmitt [sic] Till and the civil rights era in a new light. 34
Morgan and Riser concluded that Ben Roy’s could serve as a “visitor center,” an “interpretive space,” or “cultural center” where tourists could engage the history of civil rights. But what would that “new light” help us see? Not just a disappearing ghost town, Morgan wrote. Ghost towns are haunted, after all, and that was the frame Hendrickson used to set up his study of American racism. Against this vision of a haunting at Bryant’s Grocery, the proposal to restore the gas station posited “the nostalgia of small town Money.”
To make the gas station into an ‘interpretive space,’ the Tribbles promised to restore the segregated bathrooms. They emphatically chose not to install interpretive signs about the history of civil rights or the memory of Emmett Till.
In order to make Ben Roy’s into an “interpretive space,” the Tribble family promised to restore the segregated bathrooms on the north side. During the 1950s, the gas station had two bathrooms, marked “colored” and “white,” opening to the outside. Sometime later, the signs were taken down, the exterior doors removed, and the bathrooms reoriented to the inside; one was accessible from a storage room, the other from an office. The grant application included a $6,000 line item to put things back the old way. The restored bathrooms would “display the reality of segregation in the Jim Crow South before the enforcement of Civil Rights legislation.” 35 Indeed, this was the only mechanism connecting the gas station restoration to the Delta’s racial history. The Tribble family emphatically chose not to install interpretive signs about the history of civil rights or the memory of Emmett Till. As Morgan explained to Leflore Illustrated, “We’re going to set it up exactly as it would have looked in the 1950s. … It’s not going to be a museum with panels and reinterpretations. It’s none of that. It’s the real thing.” 36
So the commemorative work would be borne exclusively by the building and the collection of midcentury artifacts it housed. Two things about the Tribbles’ collection of southern artifacts deserve mention. First, it did not include the Jim Crow signage that once marked the bathrooms “colored” and “white.” While the Tribbles refurbished the bathroom fixtures and reoriented the doors, they did not put the old signs back, so the unmarked bathrooms could not truly “display the reality of segregation.” Second, in addition to the original artifacts returned to the store, the family collected a variety of extra midcentury items to help refashion Ben Roy’s as a “period piece,” including a vintage sofa, circular washtubs, sewing machine, Hobart meat slicer, Coca-Cola signs, midcentury wheelbarrows, and decorative trunks. 37 While they refused to add signage that could have linked their gas station to civil rights, they were happy to add artifacts that connected it to the charms of midcentury rural America. The cumulative effect is that the restored Ben Roy’s is far more powerful as a period piece than as a civil rights cultural center.
This was by design. While the grant application acknowledged that the restored building would be both “an authentic time period exhibit and [a] visitor’s center,” the emphasis was on its value as a “reminder of an era in the history of Mississippi.” Morgan wrote that the renovation would “allow visitors to step back in time to the summer of 1955.” Riser emphasized the nostalgic value of service stations in the “small-town South” as “the hub of social activity … a visible ‘front stoop’ for the community.” Although the application acknowledged the “reality of segregation,” it made that reality seem rather charming. On weekend nights, blacks and whites alike gathered to “shed their work-week blues and enjoy the Jukebox at Ben Roy’s.” 38
The restoration was paid for, literally, by the memory of Till’s murder, but the finished product recodes the racial history of the Mississippi Delta and makes Till’s murder seem like an aberration.
While the Tribbles won their civil rights grant by using tourists to blur the distinction between Bryant’s Grocery and Ben Roy’s Service Station, they spent the money in such a way that Ben Roy’s appears not as an extension of the grocery, but as a countermemorial. When all the erasures of race and the investments in nostalgia are accounted for, we are left with a period piece that evokes nostalgia for racially promiscuous front-stoop Saturday nights that may well have never happened. Indeed, the first businesses in the Delta boycotted during the civil rights movement were white-owned service stations. With the help of Medgar Evers, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership distributed 50,000 bumper stickers with the phase “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom.” Although Ben Roy’s did provide Jim Crow facilities, and thus would not have been a target of the campaign, David and Linda Beito report that the campaign “galvanized ordinary blacks in the Delta.” 39 As early as 1952, before civil-rights activists were contesting sidewalks, lunch counters, bus stations, or swimming pools, they targeted gas stations as lighting rods of black inequality in the Delta. It is difficult to imagine that a front-porch jukebox could have overcome that charge. Moreover, we know the social habits of at least one black family in Money. On Saturday nights, the Wrights didn’t go to Ben Roy’s Service Station, three miles from their home, but to the segregated streets of downtown Greenwood, which had more to offer. We also know the Wrights believed Ben Roy’s wife failed to treat blacks with respect. 40
Without saying a word — or posting a sign — Ben Roy’s just stands there, beautifully restored, evidence for those who need it of the charms of midcentury Delta life. I cannot look at it without imagining what red-capped Trump supporters might see when they look backward to a once-great America. They see an entire American infrastructure made possible by economies of race but unmarked by legacies of violence. And this is the tragic irony of Ben Roy’s: its restoration was paid for, literally, by the memory of Till’s murder, but the finished product recodes the racial history of the Mississippi Delta and makes Till’s murder seem like an aberration.
In these twin histories of abandonment and preservation, we see how race, place, and commemoration shift together. As soon as the Bryants’ store was allowed to crumble, the forensic fascination of who-did-what-to-whom was reframed as an examination of how racism persists in the Delta. The onset of ruin has transformed the focus of commemorative inquiry: the inattention of the local community is now part of the meaning of Till’s murder. And while the haunted ruins of Bryant’s Grocery suggest that the Delta has not adequately dealt with the murder of Emmett Till, the countermemorial at Ben Roy’s argues that there was not much to deal with in the first place.
Over and over again, we see that the Mississippi Delta is not simply the place where Till was killed or the setting where memory work happens. It is an ingredient part of the work itself.
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