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Award winner to develop app about murder of Emmett Till

Thursday, February 26, 2015

LAWRENCE—The Hall Center for the Humanities has announced that Dave Tell, associate professor of communication studies, has received the Fall 2014 Scholars on Site award.

Tell, along with community collaborator Patrick Weems and digital humanist Christian Spielvogel, will use Scholars on Site funding to begin preliminary work on developing a smartphone app titled “Whose Emmett Till.” The app provides an “electronic commemorative infrastructure” for a community grappling with the legacy of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder.

In 1955, Sumner, Mississippi, was the site of the Emmett Till trial. Sixty years later, the small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta is home to the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a nonprofit organization directed by Weems and dedicated to pursuing racial reconciliation through the commemoration of Till’s murder.

Since its founding in 2007, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center has discovered that the commemoration of Till’s murder is no simple task. Because so many different versions of Till’s story circulate in the Delta, the Center has met stiff resistance. Several of the roadside markers they erected have been stolen, shot, replaced and stolen again.

Tell and Weems’ app is designed to meet these challenges. As an electronic form of commemoration, the app can neither be stolen nor shot. Moreover, it uses GPS technology to negotiate the different versions of Till’s memory. As the user moves through Sumner, different versions of Till’s story will be told. For example, if the user is standing next to the law firm that defended the murderers, the app will provide their version of the story. But should the user then enter the courthouse, a different version of Till’s death appears.

“Unlike traditional memorials, our app is not simply a means of reflecting on the past; it is also designed to foster reflection on the political stakes of commemoration," Tell said.

The name of the app — “Whose Emmett Till” — reflects a commitment to not simply recall the events of 1955. More than that, the app is designed to help the residents of Sumner (or any other user) understand the various claimants to Till’s memory and the various ends such memories have been made to serve. The possessive “Whose” stresses that the memory of Emmett Till has never been a neutral historical fact. Rather, actors from across the political spectrum (and across the town of Sumner) have claimed the memory of Till and turned it to their own ends.

Tell, Weems and Spielvogel will combine their expertise to design an app that allows the fractured Southern community an alternative means of understanding the murder. Tell has published an essay and a book chapter on the memory of Emmett Till and wields expertise in memory studies. Weems, as the director of the Interpretive Center and as a community member of Sumner, acts as specialist on the local politics of Tallahatchie County. And Spielvogel will offer the technical expertise necessary to get the groundwork for the app set for design.

Tell will use Scholars on Site to travel to the Delta over the summer to conduct research in Sumner and across the Delta. Together, Tell and Weems will create the database of information needed to design the app and to apply for further funding.

Tell believes that “Whose Emmett Till” could be a model for a much larger project. There are scores of unmarked civil rights sites in the Mississippi Delta, including the still-unmarked site of Till’s death.

“Ultimately, we envision an electronic freedom trail — a massive electronic commemorative infrastructure memorializing dozens of sites in the Mississippi Delta," Tell said.

In a day when the financial costs of monuments exceeds the budget of virtually every small town, “Whose Emmett Till” provides a model of commemoration that meets the needs of local communities in a financially responsible manner.

The goal of Scholars on Site is to demonstrate the positive effects that academic knowledge can have on communities, and even more importantly, the effect that community knowledge and experience can have on academic research. The result of the project is an equal partnership of academic humanities and public knowledge that strengthens both scholarship and communities. A Scholars on Site award is also available in the upcoming spring semester. Applications are due by March 23 on the Hall Center’s online Competitions Portal.

For information regarding the Scholars on Site Award, please contact Associate Director Sally Utech at sutech@ku.edu.


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