A frequent visitor to the Mississippi Delta, long-time JSJBF board member Christine Zemla enjoys following the blues trail, learning more about the history of blues music and of course, visiting Delta blues clubs.
But what actually brought her there for the first time in 2007, and has prompted her return every year since, is a desire to learn more about the history and culture of the region, and especially to research the story of Emmett Till.
In August 1955 Emmett Till, a young black teen from Chicago, boarded a train bound for the small town of Money, Mississippi, excited at the prospect of spending time with his cousins before he was due back home to start the new school year. Several days into his trip Emmett unwittingly violated the rules of the Jim Crow South when he whistled at a white woman, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, outside of her family’s store. Four nights later he was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle Moses Wright’s home. Three days after that his brutally beaten and shot body surfaced in the Tallahatchie River. In September 1955, Carolyn’s husband and his half-brother, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted of murder by an all-white, all-male jury. The pair subsequently admitted their guilt in the January 1956 publication of Look magazine. Nobody ever served time for the crime.
If you’d like to learn more about Christine’s research and yearly trips to the Delta, check out her Emmett Till Project podcast here: www.EmmettTillProject.com/podcasts
Christine and Emmett Till’s cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr. in 2019, standing in the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi where the murder trial took place.
Rev. Parker is the last person still living who witnessed the fateful whistle and was in the house when his cousin was kidnapped.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Zemla is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University and creator of the class “Remembering Emmett Till.” She is on the board of the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation (JSJBF) and chairs the Education and Outreach Committee.
Christine’s research in music history – particularly the history of the blues – began years ago, following a week-long conference held at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, coordinated by JSJBF founding member Bob Santelli. This “best conference ever” inspired her to create the Rutgers course “Race, Roots & Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Rock music, she tells her students, is firmly rooted in blues music. And to gain a better understanding of the origins and evolution of blues music, she reminds us, we need to consider the social, political and racial hierarchies of the deep South in the early-to-mid-20th century. Influenced by western African musical traditions, and emerging in the form of field hollers, work songs and spirituals, the music that was sung and played by African Americans gave rise to a rich and enduring cultural art form: the blues.
Many of Christine’s interests converged this past summer as she completed an accelerated graduate program sponsored by Delta State University in Cleveland, MS, earning her recognition as an International Blues Scholar.