The Sign at Sharkey Bridge

How History Goes Wrong

This is the only sign with an egregious factual error.

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission originally planned for only a single river site sign to mark the spot of the body’s recovery. It was to be placed at Graball Landing, 2.6 miles downstream was this site. This sign was a last-minute addition to direct tourists down the lonely River Road towards Graball. 

When the commission was writing this sign, however, they used a story they had originally planned to use for the sign at Graball Landing. They had crafted a small, mostly accurate narrative that noted that the body was discovered by fishermen “at this location” after three days in the water. It noted further that the body was weighted down with a cotton-gin fan and that it was identified by the Till family ring still clinging to the body. All of this was true.

The only mistake in the draft, a mistake inspired by Huie’s account in Look, was the claim that “this site is approximately 8 miles downstream from where his body was dumped.” The claim that the body floated eight miles was invented by Huie to justify his invented murder site (see the full story of the invented murder site at the "Seed Barn, Sturdivant Plantation" story).

Historian Plater Robinson would have none of it. Based on information that he learned firsthand from Simon Garrett (mortician from Greenwood), he fundamentally rewrote the sign. In a strongly worded letter to the commission, Robinson insisted that, according to Garrett,

"the body was never in the river, which was twenty yards away. Instead, the body was rolled down the levee into the “drift” (the area between the river and the levee). Heavy rains had bloated the river. When the water subsided, Emmett’s body was revealed. There was a black community (houses, church, and cemetery) a few feet away."

This was a novel theory. In the fifty-three years between the murder and this communiqué, the fact that Till’s body was found in the river had never been questioned. The fact that the ETMC rewrote their sign according to these suggestions is a measure of just how much they trusted Plater Robinson. In place of their mostly accurate draft, they crafted (and installed) a sign that claimed Till’s body was never in the river.

Although it is unclear where the fault lies, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the body was, in fact, in the river. In an undated follow-up letter to the ETMC, Robinson tried to correct the record, noting that he had been fed faulty information from Garrett. Whether the letter was received too late, or whether the ETMC simply preferred the body-in-the-mud theory, they ultimately chose to go with the story Robinson learned from Garrett.

The sign that now stands where the Sharkey Bridge crosses the Tallahatchie River is the only ETMC sign with an egregious factual error. Despite what the sign says, the body was thrown in the river, it was not intended as a warning for an adjacent black community, and there is no evidence that such a community even existed.

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Sharkey bridge is busy! Be careful.