We usually think of Emmett Till as a Chicagoan. He did live on the segregated South Side during his last few years, but most of his life was spent in Summit, Illinois, a tight-knit industrial community of 12,000 people just outside of Chicago.
On August 25, 1941, Emmett was born in Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Although his first home was a nearby Summit apartment, he moved to this lot (7526 64th Street) with his mother Mamie Till before the year was out. In 1947, Till’s cousin Wheeler Parker arrived from Mississippi and moved in next door (7524 64th Street). Till's first school was just a block west. These were happy years.
In her memoir, Mamie Till-Mobley spoke warmly of Summit, remembering, “Our whole neighborhood was like an extended family.” She described how African Americans had a strong sense of community centered around church, work, and family. Emmett, along with his best friend Wheeler, explored every bit of this community on foot and by bicycle. Even after Emmett and his mother moved to Chicago in 1950, he returned to Argo most weekends to see his friends and extended family.
Summit may have offered a tight-knit community, but it was also an industrial town. In fact, the southern half of the town was known by locals as “Argo,” the eponymous name of the company that owned the world’s largest corn processing plant. Just west of Archer St., the 30-acre plant produced Argo Corn Starch and shaped virtually every facet of life in Summit. As Mamie recalled, “Every day, the people in our little Argo community could see the Corn Products plant spread out there on the horizon, dominating our landscape. It stood there as a constant reminder that the gateway to a better life was hard work.”
During the World War I era and into the 1920s, the Argo plant was indeed a gateway. It attracted thousands of African Americans determined to escape the Jim Crow South. Argo (both the town and the company) offered jobs, schools, and neighborhoods that were not rigidly segregated. Although the streets north of 63rd were red-lined and closed to African Americans, 64th Street was integrated. To be sure, Argo was no racial paradise. But compared to the Deep South from which most migrants came, it was a big step up. The plant employed black laborers in the most dangerous and difficult roles, but they offered steady hours and decent pay. In the 1930s, the plant was unionized, and laborers enjoyed better protections still. Opportunities to vote, hold property, and educate children were far superior to what lay behind in the South. Even the local sports teams had black and white players.
After a short-lived adventure in Detroit, Mamie Till-Bradley, her new husband Pink Bradley, and the ten-year old Emmett left Argo for Chicago’s South Side in 1951. With a job downtown, Till-Bradley moved to 63rd Street and St. Lawrence, in a densely packed and rigidly segregated neighborhood near her son’s school. But Argo, more than Chicago, still felt like home. Emmett took the 63d Street streetcar back week after week, and his mother never worried about him there: “I knew he was in good hands. I knew the entire community was looking out for him. . . . Argo was a good fit for Emmett. . . . He would hang out with his friends all day on Saturdays and spend a good part of Sundays in Church, where, of course, he’d find his friends again. He lived for the fellowship. He lived for the fun. That most of all.”
Argo is still a home for Emmett. In 2009, under the leadership of Dr. Marvel Parker and Rev. Wheeler Parker, the home base of the Summit Community Task Force became the Emmett Till Memorial Center. Located a short block from here, at 6450 S. 76th Avenue, the building provides space for a range of community and justice-oriented activities. The Center is currently trying to acquire the lot where Till lived so happily from 1941 to 1950 and turn it into a memorial space.