Emmett Till's Casket Is ‘One of Our Most Sacred Objects’ at African-American History Museum

Emmett Till
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Curating for a museum is no doubt a difficult job, and one of the more difficult decisions that Lonnie Bunch III—founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—remembers grappling with was whether to include the casket that once held the brutalized remains of Emmett Till.

"I remember struggling with, 'Should we collect that?’” Bunch said, according to the Chicago Tribune.


Even after he accepted the donation of Till's casket by Till's family after his remains had been exhumed and reinterred, Bunch wondered if it was "too ghoulish" to include in an exhibit.

Nonetheless, Bunch decided to move forward with the idea, saying that it was essential to explore stories such as that of Till—the Chicago teen who was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi—in order to represent the full story of the African-American experience.


"You couldn't tell the story of the African-American experience without wrestling with difficult issues, without creating those moments where people have to ponder the pain of slavery, segregation or racial violence," Bunch said.

Still, he acknowledged, there is some balance to be struck, since "this was not a museum of crime or guilt or holocaust."


And so, the Tribune reports, the upper floors of the museum, the Culture and Community galleries, will feature the same uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics, which she dominated, and a terry cloth robe that was worn by the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, and other fun artifacts.

However, in the lower levels, visitors will come face to face with some of the more somber parts of history. There they will find the remains of the São José, a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa; a South Carolina slave cabin; and a set of shackles so small, they could have been used only on a child.


Till's casket will be displayed in a room as part of the "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom" exhibition.

According to the Tribune, the room is separated by a wall, with an anteroom telling Till's story in the words and voice of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley. It was Till's mother who demanded an open-casket service at her son's funeral so that the world could see what was done to him.


On the other side of the wall will be the casket, placed on a pedestal.

It's "one of our most sacred objects," the museum's deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, said of the casket. "What this museum is going to do is make sure that America remembers that, at one point—and unfortunately, some of that still goes on—we killed our children."


Read more at the Chicago Tribune.

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