Truth telling, when it comes to the highly publicized 1955 trial in Sumner, is ugly. Prosecutors charged Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, both white, with murdering Till, whom they beat, shot, and weighed down with a cotton gin fan before dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. Following five days of testimony, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted them. Just four months later, Look magazine published their jarring confessions, made null by double jeopardy conditions. Support for Bryant and Milam evaporated. Within a year of the trial, their families had closed or sold their string of Delta businesses.
Today, visitors to Sumner can tour a courthouse that looks much as it did in the 1950s. Using newsreel footage for reference, craftsmen meticulously restored the bannister railing, 12 swiveling jury seats, and original windows found in a nearby shed. A new interpretive center across the street helps visitors process what they see. Director Patrick Weems says the goal is changed perspectives: “The idea is to reframe how people think about Emmett Till. We want them to understand that the tragedy led to the beginning of the civil rights movement.” He cites the Sumner Grille as proof that rebuilt trust is allowing the once-beleaguered town to prosper. A white male plantation owner and a black female restaurant manager forged an equal partnership to open the business.
Two hundred miles south of Sumner, another community is also learning to bank on its less palatable pages of history. Tourists each year spend more than $110 million in Spanish-moss-draped Natchez, the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River. Until recently, they rarely heard the slave side of the city’s story.
Sally Durkin owns Open Air Tours, a Natchez business she operates from the vinyl seats of a global electric motor car. Driving the novelty along Broadway Street, she jokes the vehicle “has seven hours of battery life, which is more than I can say for myself.” That type of candor is good for business, and it doesn’t hurt that Durkin’s lineage runs six generations deep in Natchez soil. The 45-minute script she recites for customers is more than just local lore. Even so, she says most tourists aren’t surprised when they stop at the home of William Johnson, a freed slave who later owned slaves of his own: “People who come to Natchez usually have some sort of history buff hidden in them, so they already know a lot. They still want to hear about fluttering fans and rustling silks, though. How the wealth was acquired has, in the past, not often been mentioned or discussed.”
But that attitude is changing. While planning for the city’s tricentennial in 2016, Natchez officials embraced what Durkin describes as a developing dimension of the city’s overall tourism product: African-American heritage.
Slavery swelled during Mississippi’s territorial period, and by the time President James Monroe provided the pen strokes necessary for statehood in 1817, slaves made up more than a third of the population. By 1860, the numbers for Natchez were even higher: 71 percent.
“It’s important that the stories of people of African descent be told by people who look like me. I give my customers truth, not myth,” says Jeremy Houston, 30, co-owner of Miss Lou Heritage Group and Tours. His Natchez tour includes Zion Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Hiram Revels, the first black man to serve in the U.S. Congress, ministered. Houston also drives his van across town to the old Forks in the Road Slave Market, a spot most other guides neglect.
It’s easy to miss. Without markers, the grassy knoll that once housed the second-largest slave market in the then-Southwest could easily fade into anonymity beside its modern neighbors, Solar Eclipse Window Tinting and a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses.
According to Houston, antebellum mansion Monmouth, in plain view across the street, keeps things in focus: “Customers have mixed emotions at the Forks. I take them to the three-way point into the city of Natchez, then we walk the path where enslaved people—some carrying babies—walked in chains. I tell them what went on here. I explain that the motto was ‘Buy more negroes to raise more cotton to buy more negroes.’”