Memory  /  Comment

Excluding Black Americans From Our History Has Proved Deadly

Why it's so important to remember even our ugliest and most racist chapters.

Through Nov. 2, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s “Flag Hall” atrium will find a single-object exhibition, “Reckoning with Remembrance: History, Injustice and the Murder of Emmett Till.” Its centerpiece is a 2008 historical marker commemorating Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy brutally lynched in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 after he whistled at a White woman.

The marker, which was originally placed near the Tallahatchie River, has been defaced by a stunning 317 bullet holes. This was not a single act of vandalism. Rather, over 13 years, signs commemorating Till were repeatedly shot, defaced with acid and thrown in the river. The continued assaults terrorized the Black community and signaled that even 50 years after Till’s murder, Black history would not be tolerated.

“Reckoning with Remembrance” exposes both what we choose to remember and what some try violently to make us forget. It unpacks the ways Black history is contested and explores how these tensions are connected to anti-Black violence today. Co-curated with leaders of Tallahatchie County, Miss., and Till’s family, the message is clear: Being included in history is a fundamental right. In fact, exclusion from history costs lives.

Since the founding of the American republic, Black feminists, ministers, organizers and radicals have emphasized history in their calls for justice. In 1808, Absalom Jones sought yearly holidays to “Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend … to the remotest generation.” In 1830, David Walker called for Black historians to “present the crimes of this nation, to the gazing world.” With such an urgent political agenda, including the abolition of slavery, Black women’s suffrage and ending legalized discrimination, why focus on history? As author and civil rights activist James Pennington put it in 1841, history was essential to “human rights.”

Pennington understood that Black history’s connection to human rights centered on a common truth: History is about belonging. It serves as a collective memory of our shared past, connecting us to one another as a people. Silences, erasures and exclusions from this shared past deny membership to the nation.

The era of Jim Crow segregation provides the starkest example of the consequences of the White majority writing Black people out of history. Jim Crow segregation was a direct assault on the political, social and economic advances made by Black Americans in the decades following emancipation.

In freedom, Black people established the foundation for today’s public school system, redefined the boundaries of citizenship, strengthened workers’ rights, exercised electoral power and held political office at local, state and federal levels. This complete transformation of Southern society struck fear into the hearts of many White Americans, North and South, contributing to a violent backlash, the dismantling of federal Reconstruction efforts, Black disenfranchisement and the creation of Jim Crow laws across the South. The U.S. government retreated from its efforts to enforce the 14th Amendment, which guarantees Black Americans equal protection under the law, and from its commitment to prevent white supremacist violence. This made possible the lynching of an estimated 4,000 Black Americans, including children like Emmett Till.

One insidious component of these Jim Crow-era attacks was the scrubbing of Black Reconstruction gains from history textbooks, national monuments and archives. Even today, Reconstruction remains one of the most overlooked periods of American history.

Those who lived through the deadly Jim Crow era knew that committing Black history to national memory was critical to justice. In 1915, Black veterans formed the Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic after White veterans excluded over 180,000 Black servicemen from a parade in Washington, D.C., commemorating the end of the Civil War. Black veterans organized, raising money to pay for travel to D.C. and forming the National Memorial Association to “erect a beautiful building suitable to depict the Negro’s [sic] contribution to America in the military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry, etc. — a fitting tribute to the negro’s contributions and achievements.”

But their quest wouldn’t be a quick or easy one. It would take a century of dedicated organizing to open the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the largest museum of its kind and one of the most visited sites on the National Mall.

In the interim, Whites were free to practice violence and exclusion against Black Americans — and then to erase it from the history books.

In 1952, three years before Till was lynched, and five miles from the courthouse where his killers would be acquitted, Jerome G. Little was born into a sharecropping family. Despite his proximity to the murder in time and place, Little never heard the story of the lynching until 1974, when he joined the Marine Corps, traveled the world and realized that Till’s story was better preserved abroad than it was in Tallahatchie County. Similarly, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, Till’s cousin and an eyewitness to the lynching, experienced silence around the murder; no one asked for his account for 30 years. And it took the state of Mississippi 49 years to dedicate its first memorial to Till.

In 1977, Little returned home from military service abroad. Believing that the silence about Till’s lynching put Black lives at risk, he aimed to end it. Working with Little, African American organizers Richard Gardner, Johnny B. Thomas, L.D. Willis, Eddie J. Meeks, Gyrone Kenniel and Robert E. Huddleston sued Tallahatchie County three times (in 1983, 1985 and 1992) and won local elected positions with a political platform that included equal access to water, education, employment, housing, health care, voting rights — and history.

While history is not often counted as a basic human right alongside the likes of clean water or fair housing, Little and his comrades understood that the exclusion of Till’s story from local Mississippi history laid a foundation for the denial of other rights. After all, being written out of a shared past is a form of dehumanization and a rejection of belonging. Historical erasure was part and parcel of the broader structural inequality they were trying to combat. That it took Black people holding political office to plant Till’s history on the landscape only underscored this fact.

In 2006, Little helped create the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to make these gains more permanent. And in 2008 he unveiled the historical sign dedicated to Till’s memory, which would, 13 years and 317 bullet holes later, end up in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, part of the push to make Black history foundational to our nation’s memory.

Today, the Movement for Black Lives pointedly insists that Black history remain a critical component of social justice agendas. Like their forebears, Black activists’ radical demands are resulting in mainstream change. The success of the “1619 Project,” the public commemoration of Black historical figures like Ida B. Wells, the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial in Alabama and the tireless work of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission in Mississippi to replace vandalized historical markers exemplify the movement toward the recognition of Black history and Black belonging.

However, as the unrelenting defacement of the Emmett Till markers demonstrates, these advances continue to be violently contested. And whether these gains have permanence or are ultimately reversed remains to be seen. Whether in Tallahatchie County, Miss., or on the National Mall, the full work of reckoning with this history and its contestations remains. Public memory is not just created by scholars, museums and governments. We all bear responsibility for what our nation remembers and forgets. As “Reckoning with Remembrance” shows us, history is an active battleground as much as it is a tool for justice.