KU professor creating digital app to interpret black teen’s 1955 murder

Founders of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss., have dealt with numerous roadblocks to commemorating the black teenager’s 1955 killing.

Among them, many versions of Till’s death circulate in the area, and roadside markers at significant sites have been stolen or shot and replaced, only to disappear again.

A Kansas University faculty member is working on an app for that.

KU on Thursday shared information about associate professor of communication studies Dave Tell’s project to create the smartphone app, “Whose Emmett Till,” along with an announcement that Tell will receive the Hall Center for the Humanities Fall 2014 Scholars on Site award to begin developing it.

Tell is collaborating with Interpretive Center director Patrick Weems and digital humanist Christian Spielvogel, who is a senior lecturer at Penn State, on the app, which the Hall Center describes as providing an “electronic commemorative infrastructure” for a community grappling with the legacy of Till’s death.

Till, 14, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was brutally beaten, mutilated and shot to death. Two white men were charged with his murder and acquitted, but later — protected against double jeopardy — they admitted in a magazine interview that they killed the teen.

Here’s how the app would work, according to KU:

Unlike physical markers, the electronic app can’t be vandalized or stolen. It uses GPS technology to negotiate the different versions of Till’s memory. As the user moves through Sumner, different versions of Till’s story will be told. For example, if the user is standing next to the law firm that defended the murderers, the app will provide their version of the story. But should the user then enter the courthouse, a different version of Till’s death appears.

“Unlike traditional memorials, our app is not simply a means of reflecting on the past; it is also designed to foster reflection on the political stakes of commemoration,” Tell said in a news release.

Tell thinks “Whose Emmett Till” could be a model for a much larger project to memorialize scores of other unmarked civil rights sites in the Mississippi Delta.

“Ultimately, we envision an electronic freedom trail — a massive electronic commemorative infrastructure,” Tell said.

Tell will use Scholars on Site money to travel to the Delta this summer to collect information needed to design the app and apply for more funding.

The Scholars on Site program supports collaborative research projects that engage community partners and KU humanities scholars, according to the Hall Center.