FSU, Mississippi School District celebrate winners of Emmett Till Archives contest

(L to R) Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies, and Katie McCormick, associate dean for Special Collection and Archives. (FSU Libraries)
Davis Houck, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies, and Katie McCormick, associate dean for Special Collections and Archives. (FSU Libraries)

Three students from Mississippi’s West Tallahatchie School District have earned top honors in the inaugural Emmett Till Archives Award contest.

The contest is a component of the Emmett Till Archival Project, a partnership of the Florida State University School of Communication, FSU Libraries and the West Tallahatchie School District in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The partnership involves teaching the history of the Emmett Till case using primary source documents from the digitized Till Archives, housed in FSU’s Special Collections and Archives.

Over nine weeks, students attending West Tallahatchie High School (WTHS) accessed these documents to create online portfolios showcasing their reflections and personal relationship with the Till murder, trial and acquittal. Three of those student portfolios earned awards funded by the Emmett Till Archive Endowment.

From a total of 30 entries, junior Adrianequa Wilchie’s portfolio project was awarded first place, which came with a $500 prize. Zakarriya Love, a senior, placed second, earning a $250 prize, and Katavious Gibbs, also a senior, placed third, earning a $100 prize.

“I was so thankful for the opportunity to be a part of something so big that let me express myself. I had lots of fun doing my project. It brought me much joy,” Wilchie said. “I was so excited because I stay in the rural area where the tragic events happened to Emmett so I thought it would be nice to share a piece of information!”

Tallahatchie County is home to the Emmett Till Interpretive Center and to the renovated county courthouse where the Till murder trial took place in 1955. Webb, Mississippi, where WTHS is located, is the hometown of Till’s mother, Mamie Carthan Till Mobley, who was born there in 1921.

The participating students immersed themselves in the materials from the Emmett Till Archives and contemplated their personal perspectives as young people living in Mississippi. Reflecting on what they learned, students created portfolios with writing, visual and multimedia components that explored their spatial, historical and social relationship to the Till murder and trial. Project submissions featured art, videos, poetry, personal essays and critical analyses, all using the primary resources of the Archives as their foundation.

The Emmett Till Archival Project was founded in 2021 by Davis Houck, FSU’s Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies and the founder of the Till Archive Fund, in conjunction with Germaine Hampton at WTHS.

“The portfolios that West Tallahatchie High School students submitted moved us. The hard landscape of the Mississippi Delta and its hard history were reflected in their multi-media meditations,” Houck said. “As children of the Delta, they are also inheritors of the Emmett Till story. With this work, they are now its curators, too.”

There were 30 total portfolio entries submitted from the participating classes of U.S. history, taught by Germaine Hampton; oral communication, taught by William Meehan; and English language arts, taught by John Fredericks. The submitted projects were judged based on creative expression, originality of approach, the incorporation of space and place and the use of archives in telling Till’s story.

“Students in the Mississippi Delta cannot escape the reality of structural, institutional and economic racism that haunts the area,” Fredericks said. “As we analyzed the Emmett Till archives, we came to realize how the spectre of Emmett Till looms so large over their lives today. I am deeply proud of the work these students created and honored to have been a part of this process.”

The Special Collections & Archives division of FSU Libraries provided resources for the students. Based on input from teachers at WTHS, Kristin Hagaman, research services and outreach coordinator for Special Collections & Archives, compiled materials into an Emmett Till Archives Guide and an Introduction to Source Analysis Guide. Both link to materials openly available in DigiNole, the digital repository of Florida State University.

“I would like to commend my colleagues John Fredericks and William Meehan for accepting the challenge of spearheading a unique opportunity for students at West Tallahatchie High School to utilize FSU’s awesome Till archival material,” Hampton said. “It is vital for students in Tallahatchie County, MS, and surrounding counties throughout the Mississippi Delta to understand the profound impact of this geographic region on America’s social conscience. Furthermore, I would like to commend Professor Davis Houck and the various helpful individuals from FSU for providing a wonderful opportunity to my colleagues, and I to find an innovative way to expose students to this insightful material.”

Everyone involved looks forward to continuing the project.

“We eagerly await the next group of Till Archive submissions,” Houck said. “Students talk to each other — and having been with many of these students this past summer, I just know their work will reflect an enthusiasm and a commitment to sharing how their stories intersect with Emmett’s.”

For more information about the Emmett Till Archives, visit guides.lib.fsu.edu/Till.