Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ has been selected as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2020 America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
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“Mamie Till Mobley’s courage—and Roberts Temple’s willingness to open its doors to anyone who wanted to bear witness to the ravages of racial hatred—changed our nation forever. The National Trust believes that we must work together to ensure that this place, so important to our country’s history, is preserved to tell its powerful story for future generations.”
- Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Chicago (September 24, 2020) - The Till and Roberts Families, Pastor Cleven Wardlow, Bishop E. M. Walker, Roberts Temple COGIC and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center commend the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s listing of historic Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, Illinois – site of the funeral service for Emmett Till that helped kindle the American Civil Rights Movement – as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The addition of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered will raise much-needed awareness to the condition of the iconic Civil Rights site and accelerate efforts to stabilize and rehabilitate the building. “As the last remaining witness to the abduction of my cousin Emmett Till, I will never forget Emmett’s funeral September 6, 1955, and this designation assures me that the world will never forget” said Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. “
In 1955, Roberts Temple was the site for the funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was abducted and brutally murdered while visiting his extended family in Mississippi. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made the heart-wrenchingly courageous decision to insist on an open-casket funeral upon his mutilated body’s return to Chicago, in order to “let the world see what I’ve seen.” Starting on September 3, 1955, thousands of mourners gathered to view the mutilated body of Emmett Till, filling Roberts Temple to capacity and spilling out onto the street. Newspapers estimated that more than 100,000 people filed past Emmett’s open casket over the next three days before his funeral service and burial at Burr Oak Cemetery on September 6, 1955. The events at Roberts Temple had an enormous catalyzing effect on the growing Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks stated, “she thought about Emmett Till that day when she would not give up her seat.”
Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer, National Trust for Historic Preservation states, “Mamie Till Mobley’s courage—and Roberts Temple’s willingness to open its doors to anyone who wanted to bear witness to the ravages of racial hatred—changed our nation forever. The National Trust believes that we must work together to ensure that this place, so important to our country’s history, is preserved to tell its powerful story for future generations.”
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ was founded in 1916 and is known as the “mother of all of the Churches of God in Christ in Illinois.” With its founding it became a central place of worship and political organizing, for many who migrated to Chicago from the South during the early 20th century. The church moved to its present day location, 4021 South State Street, in 1923. Over the next three decades the building was expanded to include a second-floor sanctuary, gothic style windows and an exterior red brick façade which it displayed in 1955 at the time of the funeral.
“Roberts Temple was where the murder of Emmett Till became a watershed moment in American history and not just a statistic. Mamie Till Mobley famously wanted the world to see the deep costs of racism, and it was at Roberts Temple that they did. Tens of thousands of Americans saw Till’s tortured body and hundreds of thousands more saw the photographs. At Roberts Temple, a lynching became the most enduring movement for change in American history. We applaud the National Trust for helping to ensure that Roberts Temple’s contribution to history is preserved for future generations,” said Patrick Weems, Executive Director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center
The Church of God in Christ denomination has long played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of its churches have hosted leaders such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who delivered his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ (the denomination’s national headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee. Roberts Temple was the first church in the denomination to achieve national and international recognition, as a result of hosting Emmett Till’s funeral service. Bishop E.M. Walker states” Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ at 4021 S. State Street is arguably one of the most significant churches in the brotherhood, and in America itself.”
Dr. Marvel Parker, Project Consultant, “One year from our first rally to preserve Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ, and the role it has in the legacy of Emmett Till we are announcing this new designation. We have a long way to go but we will continue to work.” Though listed as a Chicago Landmark in 2006, for its association with Emmett Till’s funeral, the church today has severe structural issues and is only minimally used by the congregation. The church is currently working to access the buildings condition and develop a rehabilitation strategy that addresses its structural issues, restores its 1955 appearance and allows the building to continue its use as a house of worship and community anchor in Chicago.
About the Till and Roberts Families and Partner Organizations
Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr. is a survivor of his cousin Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder. Rev. Parker has dedicated countless hours to shepherding the cultural memory of his cousin. Dr. Marvel McCain Parker and Rev. Parker were married in 1967. For the past 53 years, Dr. Parker has shared her husband’s grief and the burden he has carried as a result of Emmett’s murder, and shared in his ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. Pastor Cleven Wardlow, Bishop E.M. Walker, the Roberts Temple Church and the Roberts family have worked untiring to preserve the legacy of Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ and the role it has played in the community and the Civil Rights movement. Partner organizations supporting the preservation of Roberts Temple also include Parker Publishers LLC, the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, MASS Design Group, Summit Community Task Force, Bishop Charles E. Blake and the National Church of God in Christ and Latham & Watkins LLP.
About the Emmett Till Interpretive Center
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is a nonprofit organization that exists to educate the public on the lives and legacies of Mamie and Emmett Till and to pursue racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. The Center was the vision of the late Jerome G. Little, the first African American President of the Tallahatchie County, MS Board of Supervisors. In 2006, Little organized the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a multiracial group of 18 local citizens, which offered the first official apology to the family of Emmett Till for his murder. Today, the Center works to preserve and interpret the legacy of the Till tragedy in Mississippi and Chicago and uses the arts and storytelling to help process past pain and imagine new ways of moving forward.