Author John Edgar Wideman consumed by tragic tales of the Tills
The story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, is one of the darker episodes of American history. Forgotten is the story of his father, Louis Till, a soldier who was executed during World War II after being convicted of rape.
When the men acquitted of Emmett Till's murder were charged with kidnapping, the charges were eventually dismissed because of Louis Till's conviction. When Pittsburgh native and writer John Edgar Wideman, author “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till” (Simon & Schuster), obtained a file about the father's case through the Freedom of Information Act, he found numerous inconsistencies that cast doubt on Louis Till's guilt.
“I can't say for sure,” Wideman says when asked if he thinks Louis Till was guilty. “But I do know he never had a chance. He was convicted because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and therein lies the problem. Because what happened to him has happened to many, many people.”
Wideman will appear Nov. 14 at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of the University of Pittsburgh's Humanities Center.
The award-winning author of books including “Brothers and Keepers,” “Sent for You Yesterday” and “Hoop Roots,” Wideman was born the same year as Emmett Till. When the news of Till's death reached Copeland Street in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, where Wideman grew up, it was disheartening but not surprising to a black 14-year-old boy.
“He represented a kind of an insight into the underground way that the country operated,” Wideman says of Emmett Till. “On the surface it was a country where everybody was equal, blah, blah, blah, but there was an underground truth about white supremacy and young black men and the way those young black men were presented. And all of us were — certainly a lot of us in the African-American community — were aware of that. But we didn't talk about it because there was no point. We knew it and parents warned their young men, and their young women for different reasons, but there wasn't public discourse.”
When Wideman obtained the copy of United States v. Louis Till, he initially resisted reading it. More than 200 pages, the file was printed on paper of an “unnameable” color, haphazardly organized, both chronologically and by way of its page numbers. But he soon immersed himself in the contents, reading and re-reading it numerous times.
The file, Wideman writes, is a compendium of “frustrating discontinuities, helter-skelter chronology, bits and pieces of handwritten military dispatches and typed correspondence tossed in with no apparent rhyme or reason … pages missing, pages playing hide-and-seek. … I'm diminished by what I've learned.”
But Wideman has no regrets.
“(The file) has turned into something that has a tremendous life in my life now,” he says. “A tremendous presence. And it doesn't stop like any interesting, good story. It's never over.”
Wideman continues to hear from people who have “a stake in the story” through connections to the Tills, either metaphorically or personally. While he has found no answers or a definitive truth, Wideman has shed light on an incident that was buried and forgotten, like Louis Till's grave in a remote section of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.
“You launch into this mess and it just keeps getting grimier and grimier,” Wideman says. “One hopes that there is a purpose for it. One hopes that as a writer I can find some material that will make the whole effort worthwhile.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.