Tallahatchie County Courthouse
In September 1955, the Tallahatchie County Courthouse was the site of the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant trial 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.”
When Tallahatchie County was formed in 1833, Charleston was the county seat, and the Tallahatchie County Courthouse was constructed there. However, the Tallahatchie River splits the county in two, and in the 19th century, frequent floods prevented people in West Tallahatchie County from being able to reach Charleston. In 1902, the county was divided by the state into two judicial districts, and Sumner became the second county seat. A courthouse was constructed in Sumner in 1903, but a fire in September 1908 destroyed the courthouse and other buildings in downtown Sumner. The county had the building insured and began reconstructing the courthouse (exactly the same as the first courthouse except for some changes to the interior) right away. The courthouse was completed in 1910 and opened for use. (1) In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in partnership with Tallahatchie County constructed the statue of a Confederate soldier near the North entrance.
The courthouse is one of the few examples of Richardsonian Romanesque style in the state of Mississippi, which can be seen in “the broad low arch over the main entrance, round arches on the upper windows, and the pyramidal-roofed towers,” as stated in the National Register of Historic Places Registration. (1) It is one of two surviving Richardsonian Romanesque courthouses in the state and is the only remaining brick example of the style in the state. (1)
The J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant trial took place in the second floor courtroom September 19 to 23, 1955. Thousands of people and reporters swarmed to Sumner for the trial, which drew international attention. The jury, made up of twelve white men, included nine farmers, two carpenters and one insurance agent. The courtroom filled to capacity with people sitting on window sills and standing along walls to watch. The courtroom was segregated with the back two rows of seats reserved for African Americans, and a small table was set up for African American reporters. On the third day of the trial, Moses Wright was called as a witness and did the unthinkable--when asked who kidnapped Emmett Till, he stood in the witness stand, pointed right at Milam, and said, “There he is.” On September 23, the jury deliberated for for 67 minutes before voting to acquit both Milam and Bryant for the murder. One juror told Time magazine, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop. it wouldn’t have taken that long.” (2)
The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in 1955 during the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant
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 condition in 1955 and opened the Emmett Till Interpretive Center across the street to provide interpretation. The restoration was completed in 2020, and the bell tower is currently being restored in early 2021. 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.
Devery Anderson, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, University Press of Mississippi, 2015, p. 157.