Westmont Magazine The Living Story of Emmett Till’s Death
Dave Tell ’98 decided to write his doctoral dissertation on public confessions in American history, a practice that resonated with his evangelical Christian background. The first one he studied concerned the 1955 horrific lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old accused of offending a white woman in Money, Mississippi, where he was visiting family. The Black Chicago teenager was kidnapped, mutilated, murdered and thrown in the river.
“The text haunted me, and I changed my dissertation to tell the story,” Dave says. Prosecutors charged Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam with the brutal murder, but an all-white jury acquitted them. The two men later confessed to killing Till in a 1956 Look magazine story. In 2017, historian Timothy Tyson reported that Carolyn Bryant confessed to lying under oath about her interaction with Till. Although some have doubted whether she actually confessed, none doubt that she was, in fact, lying.
Dave earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in communication studies at Penn State before joining the faculty at the University of Kansas. He published his dissertation as a book focused on the confession, and a friend sent a chapter to the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. This group invited Dave to help them address the ongoing vandalism of signs erected in Till’s memory. Initially, Dave declined, but the group persisted, and he spent three days in the Mississippi Delta in 2014.
“I thought I knew the story well, but hearing it firsthand from family members and someone involved was very powerful,” Dave says. He volunteered to work with the commission to create a smartphone app listing memorials in Mississippi. Google offered to make a prototype, which helped secure funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the University of Kansas for the Emmett Till Memorial Project (ETMP). Initially, the free app featured stories, photographs, archival materials and travel directions for 17 sites in Mississippi, but a later version added five locations in Chicago at the family’s request. Dave became ETMP’s principal investigator, an official consultant to the Emmett Till Memorial Commission and a grant writer for the nonprofit.
As he visited the Mississippi Delta, Dave learned how towns, many of them poor, sought to profit from tourism connected to Till’s death. Some ignore the history altogether, and others rewrite it. “I realized there was a book here,” he says. “It’s a very complex, very interesting story.” He published “Remembering Emmett Till” (University of Chicago Press) in 2019 as part of the ETMP along with the app and a website, tillapp.emmett-till.org. The book reveals backstories of the area’s signs and museums and chronicles the investment in telling—or suppressing or reworking—Till’s story.
While the commission focused on developing the app, the issue of vandalized signs received widespread coverage and raised awareness of their work. The group decided to invest in heavy-duty, bulletproof signs to break the cycle of erecting signs that were soon shot up and then replaced. The Till sites had become rallying points for both civil rights groups and white supremacists, who posed with bullet-ridden signs.
Dave wrote editorials for both the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times about preserving the damaged signs. “They convey the truth of Till’s murder more completely than the pristine signs ever could because they refuse us the comfort of believing that racism is a thing of the past,” he said. “That’s why those signs belong in a museum. Vandalized, they have even greater commemorative power.”
“I teach a lot of classes on race and memory studies and how we remember different events in American history,” Dave says. “I use the Till material with my students, and they’re engaged with the ETMP. Since 2015, I’ve focused 90 percent of my professional life on thinking about Till’s commemoration.” He has built close relationships with members of the Till family and people in the Mississippi Delta, which he visits several times a year. “It’s a personal story for these people, and it’s become personal for me as well,” he says.
Dave wanted to attend a Christian college and chose Westmont for its Santa Barbara location and proximity to the beach. He studied at Gordon College in Massachusetts as a Consortium student and served as a resident assistant in Emerson Hall, then known as New Dorm. While he majored in religious studies, classes with Greg Spencer sparked his lifelong passion for communication studies. After graduating, he spent two years doing collegiate ministry with the Navigators at the University of Tennessee before attending graduate school.
Dave splits his time between work and family, and he and his wife, Hannah, and their two children get outside whenever possible, camping and mountain biking.
Meanwhile, the duty of remembering Till continues. As he wrote in The New York Times, “From my experience as a scholar of Till commemoration, my dearest conviction is that the story of the 14-year-old’s lynching must not be confined to 1955. It is a story whose relevance grows more pressing with each passing year.”
“Since George Floyd’s murder, we’ve seen an uptick in downloads of the ETMP,” Dave says. “To me, this suggests that the Till story remains a dominant lens through which we understand race in America.”