- Can a Gas Station Remember a Murder?
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The ruins of Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market and the beautifully restored Ben Roy's Service Station stand sixty-seven feet apart from each other on the southern edge of Money, Mississippi, the small hamlet visited by Emmett Till in August 1955. Both stores are now owned by a trio of siblings with a personal investment in the memory of Till's murder. Annette Morgan, Harry Tribble, and Martin Tribble are the three children of Ray Tribble, an unrepentant juror from the 1955 trial of Till killers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. After the trial, the elder Tribble excelled in business, the family accrued farmland around Money and, in the mid 1980s, the Tribble brothers purchased the two-story building that once housed Bryant's Grocery. After Annette and Harry purchased Ben Roy's Service Station in 2003, the family owned everything in Money except the Baptist church and the decommissioned post office. While only Bryant's Grocery had a direct link to the murder of Emmett Till, both stores have come to play a large, if competing, role in the commemoration of the crime.1
For all their similarities, the two stores are separated by one essential fact: Bryant's Grocery defaulted into a memory site with no intervention from either the Tribble family or the state of Mississippi. Indeed, since they purchased it in the 1980s, the Tribbles have ignored the site at which Emmett Till once allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant. The iconic front porch collapsed in the early 1990s, the interior floors were gone by the turn of the century, and Hurricane Katrina claimed the roof and a story-sized portion of the grocery's north wall. And yet, the ruin of the building notwithstanding, Bryant's Grocery has become a mecca for civil rights tourists wanting to see the place at which an infamous whistle set the Civil Rights Movement in motion. Judging by the ever-increasing number of visitors to the site, the structural integrity of Bryant's Grocery seems to stand in an inverse relationship to its symbolic value: the greater the ruin the more potent the memory site. In recent years, the state erected a sign proclaiming Bryant's Grocery the origin of the Civil Rights Movement and, at virtually the same time, the county erected a cheap, orange, plastic fence to protect visitors from falling bricks.2
Ben Roy's Service Station, on the other hand, has been actively written into the story of Till's murder. In July 2011, Annette Morgan and Harry Tribble won a Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites grant for the restoration of Ben Roy's Service Station. Because Bryant's Grocery was crumbling and because Ben Roy's had a covered portico, the Tribbles reasoned, the gas station had become a default lecture site from which tourists could gaze at the grocery and learn their civil rights history. The application put its case for civil rights dollars like this: "It is very likely that the events that transpired at Bryant's Grocery … were discussed underneath the front canopy of the adjacent service station." And, with nothing more certain than the possibility that Till's murder was discussed from the adjacent [End Page 55] building, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History gave $200,000, earmarked for civil rights, to the restoration of Ben Roy's.3
The grant for Ben Roy's Service Station was written and managed by Mary Annette Morgan, granddaughter of juror Ray Tribble. Since I've known her, Mary Annette has courageously lobbied her family to commemorate Till's murder. From her perspective, the restoration of Ben Roy's was but the first step in a more comprehensive effort to restore the town of Money, preserve Bryant's Grocery, and remember Till's murder. Her admirable intentions notwithstanding, the funding mechanism she used to start the project no longer exists and Ben Roy's Service Station now appears, not...