Tallahatchie County Courthouse
In September 1955, the Second-District Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, MS hosted the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. The trial was described by journalist David Halberstam as “the first great media event of the civil rights movement.”
The magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque building that housed the Till trial was Tallahatchie County’s second courthouse. The first one was in Charleston, the 3,000-person county seat on the eastern edge of the county. But, because the Tallahatchie River flows north-to-south through the heart of the county, and because the annual flooding of the river prevented half the population from reaching Charleston, the county built the Second-District Courthouse in Sumner in 1902. It was destroyed by fire within a year and rebuilt in 1903. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy spearheaded the creation of a Confederate soldier monument near the North entrance.
The Sumner courthouse is one of two surviving Richardsonian Romanesque courthouses in the state; it is the only extant brick example. According to its registration on the National Register of Historic Places, the style is marked by “the broad low arch over the main entrance, round arches on the upper windows, and the pyramidal-roofed towers.”
From September 19-23, 1955, thousands of people descended on the 550-person town of Sumner. The second-story courtroom reportedly reached ninety degrees as it filled to capacity. After the seats were taken, white onlookers perched themselves on windowsills or leaned against the walls. A strictly segregated space, the back two rows of seats were reserved for African Americans and a card table was set up for the black press, African-American dignitaries, and the Till family.
On the first day of the trial, members of the black press teamed up with NAACP Field Secretaries Medgar Evers and Ruby Hurley to search for witnesses. By the second day of the trial, Evers, Hurley, and journalists James Hicks, L. Alex Wilson, and Simeon Booker had located enough witnesses that Judge Curtis Swango was forced to call a recess, allowing the authorities to investigate these new leads.
The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in 1955 during the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant
On the third day of the trial, Till’s uncle Moses Wright braved death threats and took the stand to share the story of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant forcing their way into his home to abduct Till. Asked if he could identify a perpetrator, he held out his arm, pointed directly at Milam, and said, “There he is.”
The next day, three of the witnesses discovered by Evers, Hurley, and the journalists testified that they saw Till in the presence of J. W. Milam on the morning he was murdered. Unfortunately, neither the courage of Moses Wright nor the testimony of eyewitnesses was sufficient to move the jury. On September 23, the fifth and final day of the trial, they deliberated for only 67 minutes before voting to acquit both Milam and Bryant. One juror told Time magazine, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
In 2007, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission offered a public apology to the Till family on behalf of the people of Tallahatchie County on the steps of the courthouse. This was the first such apology offered to the Till family from anyone in the state of Mississippi. The first line of the apology reads, “Racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth.”
The Tallahatchie County Courthouse has now been restored to its condition during the 1955 trial of Emmett Till's murderers.
Between 2007 and 2020, Tallahatchie County and the Emmett Till Memorial Commission raised over $4 million to restore the building to its 1955 condition and opened the Emmett Till Interpretive Center across the street to provide interpretation. The restoration was completed in 2020. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center offers historic tours of the Courthouse.
The Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 for its role in the Emmett Till murder trial and for being an example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.
“National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse,” Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2007, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/73892043.
Dave Tell, Remembering Emmett Till (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). See esp. Chapter Two.