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Florida professor establishes fund to sustain Emmett Till research projects at local university

Byron Dobson
Tallahassee Democrat
Walton Sun

Florida State University professor Davis Houck, one of the country’s leading scholars on Emmett Till, has established an endowment at the university to sustain future studies of the slain teen’s place in history.

Till, 14, was kidnapped, savagely beaten, shot and his weighted down body dumped in the Tallahatchie River after he was accused of flirting with a white store clerk in Money, Mississippi.

The Chicago native was visiting family at the time. Two white men were tried for his murder and acquitted. They have since died.

Till’s murder in 1955 is considered a pivotal point in igniting the country’s civil rights movement. Circumstances of Till’s death remain an open investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In August 2015, the Emmett Till Archives at Florida State University Libraries was established to house the collections of Houck, author Devery Anderson and filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

The gift from Houck and his family establishes the Emmett Till Lecture and Archives Fund.

“This gift honors Emmett Till, whose life and memory have become touchstones for U.S. civil rights history,” said Houck, the Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies in the School of Communication.

“This collection will continue to evolve as the nation’s preeminent site to preserve materials related to the kidnap, murder, trial and aftermath. It will also support the collaborative work with the Emmett Till Memory Project as we continue to tell this dynamic story."

The Emmett Till Lecture and Archives Fund primarily will support an annual Emmett Till Archives lecture and add to the collection.

Other activities provided by the fund may include travel for researchers and students to work with the collections and funds for student scholarships and projects produced from the Till Archives, FSU Libraries said in a release.

“It’s the largest and only Emmett Till archives in the world,” Houck said of the collection of thousands of newspapers articles and other documents open to the public.

It also includes magazines, oral histories, photographs, government records, scholarly literature, creative works and other materials documenting the Till case and its commemoration, memorialization and discussion in scholarship and popular culture.

Houck, co-author of “Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press” with Matthew A. Grindy, also helped create and lead the Emmett Till Memory Project, which developed a 21st-century digital historical record of the people, places and episodes associated with Till’s murder and legacy.

“Houck’s gift will enable our students and researchers to engage with these materials to connect events from this tragedy of the past with social issues of the present,” said Gale Etschmaier, dean of FSU Libraries. “Through this, we hope the lessons of the past can be a catalyst for change for the future.”

Houck said he and his family endowed the fund as a thank-you to the support FSU Libraries has given him the past 20 years.

“Specifically, the extraordinary work of Reggie Jones, Velma Smith, Kyung Kim, Katie McCormick, Rory Grennan, Julia Zimmerman and Gale Etschmaier has allowed my career to flourish,” Houck said. “Their commitment to excellence also has made countless classroom projects come to life for me and my students.”

Thursday’s news of the endowment comes one day after the U.S. House passed HR 35, legislation introduced by Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.

The bill approved by the House was amended prior to the vote on final passage to sync up with anti-lynching legislation passed last year by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate bill, called the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, makes lynching a federal crime by establishing it as a new criminal civil rights violation. The legislation would amend federal civil rights law to explicitly include provisions on lynching, USA Today reported.

The next step is for both chambers to reconcile the two bills before it is forwarded for the president’s signature.

Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at bdobson@tallahassee.com or on Twitter @byrondobson.

This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.