What is: a vacant lot, where Dr. TRM Howard lived, Mound Bayou, Mississippi. His place burned down several years ago.
What was: Mound Bayou is 42 miles away from Sumner, MS where the Emmett Till trial occurred. However, it is an essential place in civil rights history for numerous reasons, but among them was that Mound Bayou and Dr. Howard’s house in particular, provided protection for witnesses, a home base for the black press, and a refuge for Till’s mother Mamie Till-Bradley. Without Mound Bayou and Dr Howard we would likely still not know what happened to Emmett Till.
Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was a legendary Mississippi activist and his charismatic style meant that threats on his life were common. In the years before Till was murdered, Howard already had a $1,000 price tag on his life. He traveled with armed bodyguards, and his home featured twenty-four-hour-a-day armed protection. You get a sense of his home in #Tillthemovie
The sheer security of the Howard home explains why so many African Americans stayed with him when they came to Mississippi for the Till trial. It is why Till’s mother Mamie Till-Bradley, Michigan Congressman Charles C. Diggs, and other African Americans used the Howard home as their base camp. Howard provided the motorcade that protected Mamie Till when she attended the trial. Local stories tell of Mamie being wrapped up in a carpet on the floor of a car, as the body guards drove the 40 miles to court.
It was Howard’s home where on Sunday, September 18, 1955, around midnight when a young black plantation worker named Frank Young arrived claiming he had direct evidence linking J. W. Milam, Roy Bryant, and four others to the murder. He also broke the then-shocking news that Till had been killed in Sunflower County. He told Howard that, at approximately 6 am on August 28, Till had been conveyed via a pickup truck with four white people in the front and three African Americans in the back (including Till) to the seed barn on the Milam Plantation operated by J. W. Milam’s brother Leslie.
Young also told Howard that witnesses heard desperate screams emanating from that seed barn; that they saw J. W. Milam emerge from the barn for a drink of water; that the screams gradually faded; and that a body was taken from the barn, covered with a tarpaulin, and placed in the back of a truck. He further assured Howard that this entire story could be verified by five Black witnesses: himself, Willie Reed, Add Reed, Walter Billingsley, and Amanda Bradley.
The next evening (after the first day of the trial was complete), Howard called a strategy meeting at his home in Mound Bayou. Present at the meeting were NAACP officers Medgar Evers and Ruby Hurley and three influential members of the Black press: James Hicks, L. Alex Wilson (Tri-State Defender), and Simeon Booker (Jet). Although Hurley, Booker, and Hicks wanted to go public with the story immediately, Howard prevailed upon them to hold the story until the safety of the five witnesses could be found and their safety assured. They agreed to contact the state’s lawyers through a trusted member of the white press, the Memphis Press-Scimitar’s Clark Porteous.
Although T.R.M. Howard is generally remembered for his 1951 founding of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Howard’s civil rights credentials were vast. He organized a non-violent movement in the Mississippi Delta four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and three years before Emmett Till’s murder), he organized annual civil rights rallies, and he stoked Medgar Evers’ nascent activism by hiring him.
Several years after the Till trial, Dr. Howard himself would be smuggled out of Mississippi as a KKK hit was planned on him.