BRONZEVILLE — The Grand Boulevard church where Emmett Till’s mother showed his brutalized body to the world can make much-needed repairs thanks to a grant.
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State St., was one of 40 sites across the United States to receive a portion of a $3 million grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a multi-year initiative to preserve Black landmarks.
The church, which was started in 1916, will get $150,000 to fix cracks in the foundation and water damage, said the fund’s associate director, Tiffany Tolbert.
“It means the world to us. Our church is 105 years old; and at 105, bones are going to start cracking. There’s aches and pains,” said Sharon Roberts Hayes, the great-granddaughter of founder Bishop William Roberts.
Services are still held there every week, and the church is structurally sound, Roberts Hayes said.
Tolbert said their group worked with church leaders to assess the building and find out what kind of fixes they need.
“We have some cracking, some masonry work … . The grant is a good step to get a handle on those things,” Tolbert said. “The funding will allow the congregation — along with local partners — to look at a broader preservation plan for the entire building.”
The church made headlines in 1955 when Mamie Till-Mobley chose it as the site of her son’s funeral. More than 50,000 people poured into the sanctuary to pay their final respects. The grieving mother’s decision to publicize the service is considered by many to have launched the Civil Rights Movement.
The grant is among several efforts in recent months to raise awareness about the condition of the church and safeguard it.
The first Church of God in Christ church in the Midwest, Roberts Temple took five years to build, the last brick cemented in 1923. It’s only been renovated twice since then, and it was placed on a list of the nation’s most endangered historic places in the fall.
In March, Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin introduced a bill in Congress to make the church a national historic site, managed by the federal government under the National Park Service.
A documentary, “40th” covers Bishop Roberts and the legacy of Roberts Temple. It was directed by another great-granddaughter, Lora Branch, and was screened at the Chicago South Side Film Festival in February. Roberts Hayes said the work she and her cousin are doing to preserve the structure and its history is merely a continuation of what their great-grandfather started more than a century ago.
“We wanted to preserve it for 100-plus years. We’re at that mark now, so we’re just going to keep going,” Roberts Hayes said.
In celebration of what would have been Emmett Till’s 80th birthday, Roberts Temple is hosting a small celebration Sunday night. Gospel singer Vernon Oliver Price — mother of former Temptations lead singer Louis Price — and Lou Della Evans-Reid — the sister of late Fellowship Baptist Church founder Clay Evans — are scheduled to attend.
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund was created in 2017 in response to the Charlottesville Confederate statue conflict. It accepts applications from organizations across the country looking for financial support to save Black cultural institutions.
Thanks to a $20 million donation from philanthropists Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett, the fund has doubled in size, said Executive Director Brent Leggs. Former President George W. Bush and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation also have given to the fund, and an anonymous donation was made in honor of Ahmaud Arbery.
“We’re … essentially telling the full story of these sites associated with African American achievement, activism, education, culture — and that is a wide breadth of resources that haven’t received support as others in the past,” Tolbert said. “With this fund, we’re able to put resources out in the communities with organizations that are passionately working to save these historic resources.”
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