A Mother’s Legacy in a Multicultural Neighborhood

July 19, 2023
By: Elizabeth Barahona
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers.

On April 29, 2023, two hundred spectators anxiously awaited the unveiling of Mamie Till-Mobley’s statue at Argo Community High School in Summit, IL, amidst drizzling rain.[1] The street was closed off from end to end by the police and fire departments as families sat on bleachers under their umbrellas and others under a tent facing the covered statue. The statue was placed near the entrance of the high school and along the main road in the heart of the Summit community. The crowd comprised many generations of community members, some in wheelchairs, others in ripped jeans and hoodies, and a few learning how to walk for the first time on the dewy grass. Black, white, Latino, Asian, and Middle-Eastern neighbors greeted each other, students dapped up, and the community stood as one in anticipation of the unveiling of a beloved alum, activist, and mother. The representation of Mamie Till-Mobley’s statue in a multiracial village is a communal recognition and celebration of Black activism, a reminder that Black and Civil Rights history is an integral part of the community’s narrative, and a marker of inspiration for current and future Black and non-Black residents. The Summit community has a profound sense of pride for their late resident and alum, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her son, Emmett Till.

Statue of Mamie Till-Mobley

Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley was born in Webb, Mississippi in 1921. Like hundreds of other Black Mississippians, Mamie’s family migrated to Summit, Illinois in 1924 at the height of the Great Migration. Black migrants aimed to escape Jim Crow policies, racial violence, and post-slavery labor conditions in the South. Mamie’s family had heard about lynchings in nearby towns and knew that white supremacists used violence to “send a signal, to make sure that Black people in the area were kept under control.”[2] Black migrants also sought out improved economic, social, and political opportunities for themselves, their families, and their futures. Even though they moved North, Mamie, like her son, would maintain her connection to Mississippi and the South by visiting her extended family that chose not to migrate.[3]

When she moved to Summit, the community was made up of mostly white European immigrants with a growing African American migrant population. Summit, like other parts of the Chicago metropolitan area, was a popular destination of the Great Migration. Mamie’s father, alongside other Black migrants, found work in factories at the Argo Corn Products Refining Company, a significant opportunity for Black folks in the early 20th century. Mamie understood that racial discrimination was present in the predominantly white community, but it was not to the same degree as in her birthplace in Mississippi where racial violence was much more frequent and severe and freedom and choice were less tenable. In her memoir, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (2004), Mamie described Summit as a “sleepy little town where whites called blacks by their first names and where blacks would never dare do the same thing.”[4]

The Black community in Summit was tight knit. After Mamie Till-Mobley and her family moved to Summit, Mamie’s mother, Alma encouraged their extended family to migrate as well. Soon, Mamie’s neighborhood would include her uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors from Mississippi. Mamie’s home served as a community space for recent migrants to have a meal, use the house phone, and find shelter, even when the family was not home.[5] Mamie described her mother, Alma, to be “kind of like Harriet Tubman,” because she helped Black migrants settle, find jobs, and adjust to life in the North. Alma also founded the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, a church from her home that became the spiritual center of Black Mississippi migrants. The community nicknamed Summit, “Little Mississippi,” to describe the depth of the camaraderie of the Black community and as a nod to the violence they left behind but still lingered heavily.[6]

At Argo Community High School, Mamie was an excellent student. She earned all “A” grades in her courses and was the fourth African American student to desegregate the predominantly white high school. Mamie was the first Black student to graduate at the top of her class and recognized on the honor roll. She succeeded despite experiencing racism from her classmates and teachers, who often hindered her academic progress. She successfully graduated from Argo Community High School in 1940.[7] A year later, in 1941, Mamie gave birth to her son, Emmett Till. One of Argo’s best students gave birth to “Argo’s favorite son,” a moniker Mamie gave Emmett who would be raised by Summit’s Black community.[8] An illustration of the neighborhood’s communal parenting is the fact that Iberia Hampton, the mother of the chairman of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, used to babysit Emmett Till as a child.

On August 28th, 1955, Emmett Till was visiting his extended family in Drew, Mississippi when a white woman named Carolyn Bryant accused him of accosting her. Two of Bryant’s relatives abducted and brutally murdered Emmett. The two men left his body and sustained horrifying injuries that left him almost unrecognizable. After the murder of Emmett, Mamie’s courage to have an open casket funeral for her son is credited by race scholars like Tim Tyson to have catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement.[9] Mamie wanted the world to experience the shock of witnessing Emmett’s brutalized face and body, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” The nation was captivated in both pain and desperation for justice by Emmett’s body and as Mamie toured the country relentlessly to actively raise awareness about the tragedy of racial violence against African Americans. Showcasing a statue of Mamie in 2023 in the heart of the Summit community is a memorial to her contribution to the movement, a call to action to young people to continue the pursuit of justice, and a source of pride in the legacy of the Tills in this small yet multicultural southside suburb of Chicago.

Almost a hundred years after Mamie’s initial migration to Summit in 1924, the community has undergone another grand transformation. The township which was mostly African American and white for the first half of the 20th century experienced an increase in Latino migration beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the turn of the 21st century.[10] The Latino population increased from 6% in 1970 to 16% in 1980, 32% in 1990, 50% in 2000, to 81% in 2020.[11] The industries that employed white and African American workers like Mamie’s father in the 1930s started to downsize or close down and warehouses opened in the second half of the 20th century.[12] Black and white residents near retirement age sold their homes to incoming young Latino, mostly Mexican families. Once again, Summit became a destination where migrants could raise their families, find employment, and foster community with one another. By 2023, this multicultural community planned, implemented, and inaugurated the statue of Mamie Till-Mobley, commemorating its Black history and hoping to inspire the next generation of diverse social justice activists.

The unveiling of the “Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Memorial Walkway and Memorial Plaza” on April 29th, 2023, captured the essence of Summit’s close-knit Black community, while also embracing its emerging multiculturalism, skillfully blending remembrance of Emmett’s tragedy with the celebration of Mamie’s activism. The event began with Justine M., an Argo Community High School senior, who took the microphone at the front of the stage and performed James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the African American National Anthem. The lyrics were as follows:

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won”

“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

As Justine’s soft soprano voice sang the lyrics, the audience remembered the long road of the Civil Rights Movement, the presence of Black folks in the Southside Summit-Argo community, and the responsibility of young people to continue to take on the journey that Mamie championed forward.

In his opening remarks, Dr. William Toulios, the superintendent of the school district, “hope[d] that the statue [would] generate opportunities to foster, defend, and encourage the community with the memories of Mamie and Emmett to continue to move the pursuit of justice forward.”[13] He proceeded to thank officials, congresspeople, alumni, business folks, community members, students, and the statue’s sculptor, Sonja Henderson, an African American artist, who together worked to complete the memorial project and kickstart the Mamie Till-Mobley scholarship foundation for students.

The next speaker was Sean Casten, the U.S. representative for Illinois District 06. He mentioned serving one term with the late John Lewis, the Atlanta-based civil rights leader who almost lost his life after he marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 in protest of Jim Crow segregation. Casten argued what many historical magazines have claimed before, that Emmett Till[‘s murder] started the Civil Rights Movement.[14]  He emphasized that the movement started in Summit and that the statue would inspire all those who walk to school to “stay awake” even when others want “us to stay asleep about the tragedy,” hinting at the recent death of Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of attempted rape, who at the age of eighty-eight died earlier that week.[15]

The ceremony continued with a celebration and reflection of Emmett and Till’s life through music, oral history, and calls to action. Following Casten’s remarks, the Argo student choir made up of Black, white, and Latino students sang an original song entitled “Unconquered Soul” in honor of Mamie. The crowd cheered them on in an almost praise break fashion, shouting “all right now,” and “come on babies” as the students smiled through their song in their long burgundy and gold choir gowns.[16] The ceremony continued with folks who were close to the Till family. Reverend Park, Emmett’s cousin, and childhood best friend, brought out his aunt Thelma Edwards who was also an Argo Community High School alum and who saw Emmett’s birth and babysat him as a child. As Aunt Thelma took the microphone her powerful words reverberated in the crowd. The news of Emmett’s murder devastated her and took a toll on her physical health. Yet, she said that there was no animosity in her heart against those responsible. Her words left the crowd quiet and pensive, navigating their celebration, sadness, anger, and forgiveness.

Members of the Till family and the sculptor, Sonja Henderson unveiled the statue. The artwork depicted Mamie Till-Mobley in bronze, standing in front of a podium that featured an image of her son, Emmett, on his bicycle around the age of eight. Mamie was depicted in the dress she wore in her speech during an interview outside the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi after Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted for the murder of her son. Mamie was wearing a long sleeve dress with a wide collar and bow and a skirt below the knee in one-inch pointed heels. Her face was stern, and her hand was raised above her waist as if she were gesturing during a speech. The podium stand was embellished with flowers, geese, swans, a pond, and two fishing poles (symbolizing Mamie and Emmett). The podium’s frame displayed a quote by her, “We are only given a certain amount of time to do what we were sent here to do. You don’t have to be around a long time to share the wisdom of a lifetime. There is no time to waste (sic).”

The penultimate speech of the statue’s inauguration was a powerful call to action by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a young Black woman who represents the fourth Senate district. She began her speech by reminding the audience that Mamie’s activism was born out of her being a mother. She argued that Mamie became an agent of change out of tragedy. In that moment of grief, she decided to show her son in an open casket which turned out to be a catalyst to act against the injustice against the Black community. Lightford argued that “no matter what life throws at us, we have a duty to uphold, to make the world a better place and set a powerful example of turning pain into power.”[17] Lightford added that Mamie, “taught us to fight racism directly no matter who tries to fight us.”[18] She reflected on how Mamie’s story and legacy inspired her to take on challenges head-on, to love and care fiercely, and her duty to make the world a better place. The statue would serve as a constant reminder of that duty.

The unveiling of Mamie Till-Mobley’s statue at Argo Community High School in Summit, Illinois, served as a powerful symbol of unity, recognition, and inspiration within the multicultural community. As the diverse crowd gathered under umbrellas and tents, people from various backgrounds came together, transcending racial and ethnic barriers. This collective anticipation and shared sense of pride demonstrated that Mamie’s legacy extends far beyond her time. Her statue stands not only as a tribute to her activism and resilience but also as a testament to the ongoing fight for racial justice and equality. The presence of this statue in a multiracial village serves as a constant reminder that the history of Black activism is intertwined with the community’s narrative. It serves as an inspiration for both Black and non-Black residents, reminding them of the importance of standing up against injustice and working towards a more equitable future. Through this enduring symbol, Mamie Till-Mobley’s spirit lives on, encouraging all to strive for a society built on compassion, understanding, and collective progress.

[1] Residents sometimes refer to the village of Summit as Summit-Argo or Argo. Argo is a subdivision annexed by Summit in 1911 and named after a previous manufacturing plant.

[2] Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (Random House Publishing Group, 2011), 37.

[3] Till-Mobley and Benson, 38.

[4] Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (Random House Publishing Group, 2003), 17.

[5] Till-Mobley and Benson, 40.

[6] Till-Mobley and Benson, 36.

[7] Till-Mobley and Benson, 45.  Till-Mobley and Benson, 43.

[8] Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 45.

[9] Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York : Simon & Schuster, 2017), 5, http://archive.org/details/bloodofemmetttil0000tyso.

[10] Gary Moore Special to the Tribune, “SUMMIT BECOMES A NEW TOWN: [SOUTHWEST FINAL, SW Edition],” Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1998, sec. TEMPO SOUTHWEST.

[11] Tribune. “P2: HISPANIC OR LATINO, AND NOT … – Census Bureau Table,” accessed July 7, 2023, https://data.census.gov/tableq=Summit+village,+Illinois&y=2020&d=DEC+Redistricting+Data+(PL+94-171)&tid=DECENNIALPL2020.P2


[13] Toulios, William. “Inaugural Address.” Speech, Argo Community High School, Summit, IL, April 29, 2023.

[14] Smithsonian Magazine and Ellen Wexler, “How Emmett Till’s Mother Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement,” Smithsonian Magazine, accessed June 23, 2023, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/emmett-till-mother-galvanized-civil-rights-movement-180980925/; “Emmett Till’s Death Inspired a Movement,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed June 23, 2023, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/emmett-tills-death-inspired-movement; “Emmett Till’s Death Could Easily Have Been Forgotten. Here’s How It Became a Civil Rights Turning Point Instead,” Time, November 1, 2018, https://time.com/5440997/emmett-till-remembrance/; “How Emmett Till’s Murder Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement,” HISTORY, April 27, 2023, https://www.history.com/news/new-book-sheds-light-on-the-murder-of-emmett-till-the-civil-rights-movement.

[15] Casten, Sean. “Guest Address.” Speech, Argo Community High School, Summit, IL, April 29, 2023. “White Woman Whose Accusation Led To The Brutal Murder Of Emmett Till Has Died,” Essence, April 28, 2023, https://www.essence.com/news/emmett-till-accuser-died/.

[16] A “praise break” refers to a spontaneous celebration, exuberant worship, or joyous expression during a religious or spiritual gathering often seen in African American spaces of worship. It is an opportunity for individuals to freely express their praise, gratitude, and devotion to God.

[17] Lightford, Kimberly. “Political Guest Address.” Speech, Argo Community High School, Summit, IL, April 29, 2023.

[18]  Lightford, Kimberly. “Political Guest Address.” Speech, Argo Community High School, Summit, IL, April 29, 2023.

Elizabeth Barahona

Elizabeth Barahona is a PhD Candidate in history at Northwestern University. She conducts research at the Chicago History Museum and teaches labor history to low-income Chicago adults through the Odyssey Project at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at the Cook County Jail. Currently, her research looks at African American and Latino coalition building in the U.S. South in the 1980s and 1990s. Her work has been published in the Journal of American Ethnic History, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books, Intervenxions at New York University, and at Northwestern University.

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