For those of you who relish reading unfettered history, I think you will like this original piece. When it was published eight years ago today in the local paper, I was reacting through the prism of history the day before the first African-American was about to take the oath of office as the President of the United States. Ultimately, this documented perspective on the lives of two disparate American figures, Emanuel Hurie and Emmett Till, holds up very well because the perpetuity of history is always able to transcend time itself. Michael Crichton once wrote, “If you don’t know the past, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” As a freedom-loving people, we need to know each root, branch, stem, and leaf that make up our brilliant national mosaic.
At first glance, Emanuel Hurie, a Virginian slave who resided in the eighteenth century and Emmett Till, a young man who lived and died in the mid-twentieth century, have little if anything in common. Given the historical nature of the impending inauguration of the nation’s forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, however, there is an indelible link that connects them through the lens of history.
Emanuel Hurie lived an archetypal life for a slave in late eighteenth-century America. Owned by his master, Mr. John Hurie, Emanuel resided in Fairfax County, Virginia and worked as a mason and carpenter. Like most chattel at the time, he also was also assigned to the grounds of Hurie’s plantation when extra hands were needed to harvest the local tobacco planter’s crop.
Emmett Till was a resident of the Southside of Chicago throughout his short life. As a child, Emmett contracted polio which left him with a slight limp. His mother, Mamie, always claimed that Emmett’s stuttering began after he became ill, a direct consequence of his bout with polio.
Emanuel Hurie worked six days a week, from sunrise to sundown, and, like the vast majority of slaves in eighteenth-century America was forbidden to travel freely. Emanuel was also prohibited from learning how to read and write, outlawed from gathering in groups of three or more, and even banned from venturing to go outside of his own little slave quarters after dark.
Emmett Till grew up in an integrated area of the Windy City and lived a rather emblematic life for an African-American teenager at the time. He loved the Chicago White Sox; rock ‘n roll; Milky Way bars, and Warner Brothers cartoons which he watched on his mother’s old Philco. Outgoing and popular as an eighth grader, Emmett began to date girls – including a local white coed – during his final year of junior high.
As a slave in late eighteenth century America, Emanuel Hurie was legally considered “three-fifths of a human being” by no less an authority at the time than the United States Constitution. Accordingly, he could be bought and sold at the whim of his master. When John Hurie “rented” his slave, Emanuel, for work outside his own plantation, Master Hurie would receive payment in the form of legal US currency.
In the mid-1790’s, Emanuel’s owner farmed out the slave for a period of three months in order to help build the underpinnings for a local house. An unknown governmental official for the United States Treasury Department wrote the following perfunctory entry for January 12, 1795:”Please pay to John Hurie the balance due for the hire of Negro Emanuel for the year 1794.” It was never recorded whether Emanuel Hurie found it ironic that he had laid the foundation for what would first be called the Executive Mansion – until Theodore Roosevelt later changed its official name to the White House.
In late August 1955, Emmett Till traveled to Mississippi to visit his great uncle, Moses Wright, in the tiny hamlet of Money. One afternoon after buying a soda and a Tootsie Rollbar at a local grocery store, Emmett looked into the eyes of the checkout person, an attractive white married woman named Carolyn Bryant, and murmured, “Bye, Baby,” to her as he left. He had wanted to impress his Southern cousins who were dumbfounded by their impressionable Northern relative. In a region where Jim Crowism was still rampant, Emmett had gleefully bragged to them about having a white girlfriend up in Chicago.
Four nights later, Emmett Till was kidnapped by Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his stepbrother, J. W. Milam. Over the course of the next six hours, young Till was tortured, beaten, and ultimately shot in the face. His body was tied to a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan and discarded at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.
Three days later, Emmett Till’s disfigured remains were discovered by local authorities. Mamie Bradley, Emmett’s mother, returned his swollen body to Chicago where she decided to have an open-casket funeral in order, she said, “To show the world what those men did to my boy.”
Despite overwhelming evidence that proved that Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam had both kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till, they were found innocent by an all-white jury who took only sixty-seven minutes to convene. Milam and Bryant later confessed to Emmett’s murder to journalist William Bradford Huie, with Bryant admitting, “Hell, that nigger Till talked trash to my wife. Where I come from, that’s called a justifiable homicide.”
Outraged by such overt racism, the nation, and the entire world, reacted with palpable outrage. Eight weeks after the Emmett Till trial, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Birmingham, Alabama bus. In the end, however, it was the senseless murder of Emmett Till that arguably was the launching point of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
When Barack Obama and his family move into the residence that Emanuel Hurie helped to build – the White House – he will enter a residence in which twelve of his predecessors owned slaves, including eight who brought their human “possessions” with them when they moved into the Executive Mansion. Of course, sixteen presidents could have owned legally our new First Family. The impressive mansion that was built by the hands of slaves more than two-hundred years ago will now house its first African American occupants. Thus, this is no ordinary inauguration, which is something that the vast majority of Americans realize – even if a few continue to ask, “What’s the big deal?”
And so, when Illinois Senator Barack Obama takes the oath of office at 12:00 pm EST on January 20 as the Forty-fourth President of the United States, the ghosts of Emanuel Hurie and Emmett Till might well serve as potent historical bookends to the absolute wonder of the moment.