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Cemetery Scandal Renews Memory of Emmett Till

Waves of grief rocked the African-American community in Chicago last summer when news spread that grave robbers had dug up bodies at Burr Oak Cemetery and dumped the bones in order to resell the burial plots. Burr Oak, an African-American cemetery established in 1927 is the resting place of Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder became a rallying point for the civil rights movement. While three men and one woman, all black, await prosecution for the alleged grave desecrations, the community has come together to heal by creating the Chicago Burr Oak Cemetery Historical Society. “We decided to create a memorial for those whose identities may never be pinpointed,” says Tony Burroughs, a professional genealogist, “and to raise awareness of the importance of the cemetery, to let people know this is not an ordinary place.”

Till’s body was exhumed in 2005 to determine the cause of his death and had been reburied at Burr Oak in a new casket that remains undisturbed. But when the scandal broke last summer, his original casket—in which his battered body was viewed by the nation—was found rotting in pieces. Rutgers University history professor Clement Price calls this the “second symbolic tragedy” associated with Till’s casket, and hopes it will renew African-American attention to those burial places that have been a refuge from the racism blacks faced in life. “It brings to mind what used to be important, and perhaps is no longer, but should be important again,” says Price. “African-Americans, and all other Americans, should be aware of their responsibilities to these spaces.”

Till’s casket has now been acquired by the Smithsonian and will be part of the permanent collection at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

Rare Doubloon Causes Contretemps

In the late 18th century, New York City metalsmith Ephraim Brasher turned out a series of extraordinary gold coins, seven of which are known to still exist. Worth $15 when they were struck, one of them sold in 2005 for $2.99 million, and that coin became the focus of a lawsuit between the purchasers—Steven Contursi and Donald Kagan—and a coin researcher, William Swoger. Swoger claimed he had not been paid for advice he gave regarding the coin’s even greater value if, as he believes, it is the first legal United States coin. The buyers said they didn’t seek—or take—Swoger’s advice, and there is widespread skepticism in the numismatic community about Swoger’s theory. “No claims in this direction would be recognized without a long trail of evidence,” says John Kraljevich of John Kraljevich Americana and Numismatics.

Lincoln Letter Turns Up in Flea Market

Bruce Steiner recently had an Antiques Roadshow moment. Three years after paying $20 at a north Ohio flea market for a scrap of paper that seemed to have Abraham Lincoln’s signature on it—and some other stuff to boot—the retired Coca-Cola employee found out that this note was probably worth upwards of $25,000. That came after a trip to Springfield, Ill., where Steiner showed the note to John Lupton, associate director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln preservation project, who said it was very likely the genuine article. “Anything from a flea market is questionable,” says Lupton, “but the writing had all the characteristics I look for.” After hearing the good news, Steiner says, “I was just in heaven. I don’t drink much beer now but after they told me, I went to the tavern and had a couple.”

Blind Willie Johnson Rises Up Yet Again

South Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson is an interstellar hit—his song “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” was tucked aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft—but only now is he getting posthumous recognition in his native state. Despite being greatly influential—Bob Dylan, Beck and many others have covered his tunes—no one knew where Johnson was buried after dying in the Gulf Coast city of Beaumont in 1945. Then social worker and music historian Jack Ortman, originally from Beaumont, went on a mission to find the cemetery and lobby for a Texas state historical marker. “I’m a fan of the music,” says Ortman. “I couldn’t think of a sweller feller to champion.” After 18 months, and a great deal of research and persuasion, Ortman concluded that Johnson lies in a pauper’s section of the city’s Blanchette Cemetery, and the process of placing a marker is underway.

Julia Child’s Pots and Pans Are Reunited

Julia Child might be amused by the white-glove, TLC treatment that her pots and pans have been receiving since the release of the hit film Julie and Julia. Recently 30 copper pots, eight steel crepe pans, four cast-iron baking pans, an extra-large tea ball and a branding iron with the initials “JC” were delicately put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.

It was a reunion, since the museum has had nearly everything else since 2001, when Child (who died in 2004) donated more than 1,000 things, including her heavy-duty Garland range, her cabinets, her coffee maker and her gadgets. These objects were assembled into a facsimile of the actual room for a 2002 exhibition that was supposed to be open for a year, but got extended indefinitely because of its extraordinary popularity. “It’s become a kind of destination,” says Rayna Green, a co-curator for the display, “like the ruby slippers and the first ladies’ dresses.”

The pots and pans had not been part of Child’s original donation, because the Copia center in Napa Valley had requested her kitchenware back in 2001 when Child was moving from Massachusetts to California. The loan of the heavy metal to Copia ended last year, however, when it filed for bankruptcy. Now that Child’s kitchen is intact once more, it resembles the room that fellow chef—and frequent guest and collaborator—Jacques Pepin cooked in many times over the decades that he knew her. “It was the heart of the house,” he remembers. “It was really unpretentious and homey.” In a way that helps explain her vast and enduring popularity, the words apply just as much to Child herself.

West Virginia Hopes to Dispense Thousands of Unclaimed Civil War Medals

The state of West Virginia has about 4,000 Civil War medals looking for a good home. When the war ended, the state commissioned some 26,000 medals—one type for men who were killed in battle (left), another for men who died of wounds or disease and a third for men who were honorably discharged—but many got waylaid in the postwar shuffle. “We really want these to be given to families who can prove their relationship to the soldier,” says Greg Carroll, a historian in the West Virginia State Archives, Division of Culture and History. A Web site ( lists the soldiers who never got their prizes, as well as instructions on how to claim the medals, which Carroll estimates are worth upwards of $1,500.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here