GRAND BOULEVARD — The Bronzeville church where Emmett Till’s funeral was held could get another chance at receiving national landmark status now that Sen. Tammy Duckworth has reintroduced a bill supporting the measure.
The move comes months after activists and preservationists called on President Joe Biden to invoke the Antiquities Act during Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s visit to Roberts Temple Church, 4021 S. State St., to prevent it from falling further into disrepair.
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley, and Roberts Temple National Historic Site Act, would establish the 125-year-old church as a national monument, placing it under the management of the U.S. National Park Service. This is the second attempt for Duckworth, who cosponsored an earlier version of the bill with fellow Sen. Dick Durbin in 2021. That bill stalled in the Senate.
“Robert Temple Church of God in Christ is both extraordinarily and heartbreakingly important to Chicago and to our country. It’s such an important part of the Civil Rights Movement, and the fact that it’s not protected is a real disservice,” Duckworth told Block Club.
The church was the site the 1955 funeral for 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago child killed by white supremacists in Mississippi.
The bill has support from both sides of the aisle, with Sens. Durbin, Corey Booker (D-NJ), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) all signing on as cosponsors. Duckworth said that given the ongoing national debate regarding Critical Race Theory, ensuring the historic structure is preserved is crucial, particularly for a nation that wants to move forward.
While the church was granted city landmark status in 2006, a national designation would mean more protection and funding to preserve the historic building.
Duckworth is leading a similar effort downstate to establish the 1908 Springfield Race Riot Site as a national monument. Two-thousand Black residents were attacked by a mob of 6,000 white residents over two days in August 1908 after two Black men were arrested for attempted sexual assault and murder. The aftermath would impact the state capital — and the surrounding area — for decades to come and lead to the creation of the NAACP.
“It’s long overdue and it dovetails nicely with the Bronzeville effort because it shows that there are sites of national historic importance in the area, and again, how critical Chicago was to the movement. The creation of the NAACP changed the course of our nation’s history, without which we wouldn’t have had Barack Obama as our nation’s first African American president. So these are important and all of these places are tied to Illinois and Chicago in particular,” Duckworth said.
Now that the separate Bronzeville–Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Act has been passed, a national monument designation for Roberts Temple Church would complement work to turn the area into a tourist destination. Till’s childhood home is currently being renovated into a museum and two miles of shuttered railway in Kenwood could soon become the Bronzeville Trail. And — with the groundbreaking for the first phase of the Bronzeville Lakefront megadevelopment in the offing — the projects signal a sea change for the South Side.
“[This designation is just as important as George Washington’s birthplace or any other important building in our nation’s history and unfortunately there’s not a lot in terms of African American history that’s been commemorated,” Duckworth said. “This is important.”
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