Tallahatchie County Courthouse Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons

The National Park Service is allocating $7.75 million in grants to shore up 39 places and projects across the U.S.

In late September, 1955, international attention came briefly to rest on the small town of Money, Mississippi, and the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in nearby Sumner. Two white men from Money tortured and murdered Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy visiting from Chicago, and sank his body in the Tallahatchie River. Soon after, in Sumner, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted them of all charges.

A week after the trial, The Nation reported that “the crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

Now, a new grant from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund will restore the first floor of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse to the way it was back in 1955. It’s one of 39 projects awarded funds for preservation, planning, and research related to African-American history and the civil rights movement.

The trial of Emmett Till’s murderers is in the news again: In a new book, the wife of one confesses that her account—she accused Till of making a pass at her—wasn’t entirely accurate. Meanwhile, a sign marking the site where Till’s body was found is riddled with bullet holes. The episode, so brutal it helped to spark the civil rights movement, remains a raw wound for many. As my colleague Brentin Mock has written, the National Park Service itself has racist origins and a legacy of discrimination. If this past is to be wrestled with, it must first be protected from erasure. The African-American civil rights site preservation grants are a step in the direction of reckoning and repair.

J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, sit with their wives in the courtroom in Sumner on September 23, 1955 before the start of the fifth day of their trial for the murder of Emmett Till. (AP Photo)

Other projects supported by the Fund’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program include the restoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed in a racially motivated bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and the Sandy Island Culture Initiative.

The money awarded in these grants, $7,750,000 in total, comes from revenue from federal oil leases on the Outer Continental Shelf, not tax dollars. The grant program is competitive—states, tribes, local governments, and nonprofit organizations applied—and the National Park Service announced the winners earlier this month.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the 39 sites that received grant funding. (The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Some projects focus on brick-and-mortar preservation and restoration, while others lean towards education or cultural services. Some initiatives explore and record the past—collecting oral histories, for instance, in Idaho, New Orleans, Maryland, and Tennessee—while others look to chart future development with surveys, mapping, and planning.

Not all of the sites to be preserved are the sites of famous tragedies: The city of Hamtramck, Michigan, will use funding for pre-development planning for the historic Hamtramck Stadium, one of only five Negro League home ballparks still around. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will offer trainings for preservation advocates at the A.G. Gaston Motel, where segregation-era civil rights activists met to strategize at the only high-end motel open to them.

Stained glass panels at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Historical records are full of gaps and glossed-over bits, stories made to preserve innocence and pride rather than truth. These projects seek to steward the past, and guide us that way into a stronger and more honest future. There’s been some change since 600 people marched from Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery on the day in 1965 now known as Bloody Sunday; there is also much that hasn’t changed.

In the meantime, the Chapel’s roof needs repairs. Now, thanks to the African American Civil Rights Grant Program, it will have them.

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