‘He Had a Life Before Death’: Remembering Emmett Till for the Child He Was


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Ollie Gordon was only 7 years old in August 1955, when the life that she shared with three generations of her family, including her cousin Emmett Till, on the South Side of Chicago was overturned.

Emmett, 14, had traveled to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta, where he was abducted by two white men. His body was found days later in a river, mutilated and beaten with a bullet in the head.

“That was the first death that my parents and siblings had experienced,” Ms. Gordon said in an interview this week. “Then to know that he was taken by white men — we would have nightmares that somebody was going to come and take us.”

Ms. Gordon, 73, reflected on her cousin’s life ahead of what would have been his 80th birthday on Sunday, as well as on the echoes of his death in the events of 2020, with the killing of George Floyd also galvanizing a civil rights movement.

“I understand it when someone is called ‘the new Emmett Till,’” she said. “They don’t know what else to compare it to. A lynching can still be a lynching without the hanging.”

The past 18 months have also been a period of deep personal pain for Ms. Gordon. Her daughter, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who led an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Emmett and his mother, died in March after living with kidney problems for decades.

I spoke with her this week, and our conversation below has been condensed and lightly edited.

Most people remember Emmett Till for his death, but you knew him in life. What do you remember of your time together in Chicago?

We actually lived in the same apartment. My parents migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the early ’50s, and I was born in ’48. We lived in the family building.

I was around him when I was 3 to 7. He was more of a sibling than a cousin.

He was a jokester; he loved to make people laugh. There was a time when he took two dollar bills, and in between them he had cut up newspaper pages to the same size. With a dollar bill on the top and one on the bottom, it looked like he made a big wad of money. He showed it to his mom. She asked: “Where did you get all this money from?” He was lying down on the floor laughing.

I remember riding around the neighborhood with his mom to look for him when he was out past his curfew. His mom was single at the time, so he had chores and responsibilities. He was very capable of paying the bills — the gas bills and the light bills — and cleaning up the house.

He had a stutter, because he had polio when he was younger and it left him with a speech impediment. He did OK in school, but he wasn’t a lover of school. He did enough to get by, because his mom was on him. He had a golden retriever named Mike, and he was very fond of the dog.

Tell me more about what Emmett was like.

He would go over to the A&P, and he would help customers take their groceries home to earn spending money. His grandmother made sure that he was very respectful to the older people. He would shovel the snow and rake the leaves for neighbors.

He was the only child and his mother doted on him. He was spoiled, but he was loved and disciplined. They had rules and expectations of him as a young man.

I remember our last Christmas together, in December 1954. He had gotten that big hat you see him wearing in all his pictures. He was leaning on the TV and myself and my siblings are sitting on the sofa.

What was life like in 1955?

He wanted this motorbike — well, not like the ones you have today — but a bike with an engine. But his mom thought he was just going to kill himself on it. He also wanted to go visit Mississippi. He was begging his mom so hard and she gave in and let him go.

She thought that by going to Mississippi, he would be safer than getting on the bike. So she taught him how to behave and how to act cautiously because Mississippi was different from what he was used to.

What do you recall from hearing the news of his killing that August?

I remember how sick his mother got. She got deathly ill at around the time he was abducted. It’s a mother’s instinct, she didn’t know it at the time.

Of course, when the phone call came, we had a pretty happy home; then there was a lot of screaming and crying. That was the first death that my parents and siblings had experienced. Then to know that he was taken by white men — we would have nightmares that somebody was going to come and take us.

Sunday would have been his 80th birthday. Do you remember celebrating any of his birthdays with him?

I don’t, but I’m sure that we had a cake or something.

And then, my daughter and I always went to the cemetery and released balloons together. We wanted to remember his life, he had a life before death. Emmett and his mom are buried about a block and a half apart. My daughter is adjacent to his mom.

I’m so sorry for your loss.

Airickca fought to keep justice for Emmett. She died at the onset of the virus in March 2020. My daughter was working with a lot of mothers who lost their children to hate crimes.

She founded the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation. At one point, she had an altercation with Lil Wayne. That’s when the foundation really got discovered, and parents started coming to us. So my child was looking for justice for Emmett, but along the way she helped motivate other parents.

What have the last 16 months been like for you?

I have not done a lot in the last year because I lost my child, and she was my only child, and that was very grievous. For me, I’ve lost so many people that the wound just deepens further. I had breast cancer. The last year and a half have not been easy for me, as I have pre-existing conditions.

How did the killing of George Floyd and all that followed affect you?

It does something to my spirit. Sometimes I don’t want to watch the news. The police killings are lynchings, and I can’t call them anything else.

Emmett, and now George Floyd begging for his mama.

Emmett’s mom used to cry every single day. She was a teacher, and she would sit in her classroom and cry. Her students would notice. She cried from the day of Emmett’s murder to the day she died.

I lost my child and I was with her. Emmett was not with his mom and he died in a horrible, abusive way. I can’t say that I have that kind of pain. I have pain that penetrates, but her pain is of a magnitude that I cannot imagine.


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