Liberal Arts researcher uses technology to tell civil rights icon’s story

Sixty years ago, an African-American teenager was killed for violating the racial customs of the day, an event that became a catalyst for the civil rights movement in the United States. Today, the history of that iconic event is being shared through a location-based smartphone application.

Chris Spielvogel, senior lecturer in communication arts and sciences and research associate in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, helps lead the Emmett Till Memory Project, in collaboration with Davis Houck and Pablo Korea from Florida State University and Dave Tell from the University of Kansas. Both Houck and Tell are graduates of the communication arts and sciences doctorate program at Penn State. The project commemorates the death and memory of Till, whose 1955 murder in the Mississippi Delta sparked protests across the country. The 14-year-old was kidnapped, beaten and shot after he whistled at a white woman.

The Emmett Till Memory Project is designed not simply as a refresher course for memory, but as a lesson in the politics of commemoration. The project utilizes Google’s Field Trip app, which enables smartphone users to visit 51 locations in and around the Delta related to the murder, trial and memory of Till.

"Public commemoration has typically been brick-and-mortar; erected memorials, monuments and field markers help us to recognize and venerate the past, but all too often their creation reflects a process that is time-consuming, expensive, political and exclusionary,” said Spielvogel. “The Till project, in collaboration with Field Trip, allows anyone with a smart phone to visit a number of mostly unmarked places — including the shed where Emmett was brutally beaten — to learn about Till's murder, trial and memory, and deliberate its ongoing meaning and message in a context of race relations, violence and injustice.”

Wherever a person happens to be standing, the Field Trip app provides engaging narrative descriptions and accompanying media that tell the history of Till from the perspective of that place. The app is available to download for free through the Google Play store or Apple’s App Store. The Emmett Till Memory Project is listed under “Historical Places and Events” alphabetically under Emmett. For more information about the project, visit

“We think the app and our content can serve as an example of how 'digital commemoration' can help give voice to those whose stories are often not told in stone across our public landscapes,” Spielvogel said.

Spielvogel manages the technology development for the Emmett Till Memory Project. He is also the founder of Flip Learning, a publisher of Web-based textbooks. His research has appeared in international journals in the fields of digital media, gaming, and learning, communication studies, and American history, while his recent book, "Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields," examines the public memory of the Civil War. He is also the author of "Valley Sim," a massively multiplayer simulation on the Civil War that has been featured on C-SPAN2, Education Week, Campus Technology Magazine, and a variety of other national news outlets.

Based in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts, the McCourtney Institute for Democracy promotes rigorous scholarship and practical innovations to advance the democratic process in the United States and abroad. The institute is comprised of two centers of excellence: the Center for Democratic Deliberation and the Center for American Political Responsiveness. To learn more, go to

Last Updated July 29, 2017