“It is my fervent desire that my story will shed light on what happened, at least as I knew and remembered it, and illuminate my small part in this tragedy.”
So writes Carolyn Bryant Donham — in an unpublished memoir that has just come to light — about the abduction and brutal racist murder of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Black boy in 1955 Mississippi. Hers was no “small part” in the case: Her false accusation that Till made lewd comments, grabbed her and whistled at her cannot be separated from his lynching. The infamous photo of Till’s disfigured face that was published nationally in JET Magazine traumatized a generation of Black youth and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Donham’s version of the events leading up to Till’s murder is yet another historical example of how white women and girls were intimately involved in the sickness and pageantry of racial hatred in 20th-century American life.
The 100-page document titled, “I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle,” was dictated to her daughter-in-law in 2008 and 2009. NewsOne has obtained a copy through an anonymous source on the condition their identity is not revealed. It represents the first time that Donham, who is now 88 and whose whereabouts are publicly unknown, has spoken openly about the case. She describes a sequence of events in which she is repeatedly victimized: by a sexual assault; and then over decades by her ex-husband Roy Bryant; threatening phone calls and letters from unknown sources; by a series of personal losses; and by news media pestering her.
But the legal record of Donham’s memoir is a work of hagiography designed to absolve herself of culpability in the lynching of a child. At its core, it is full of lies as well as offensive tropes about Black people, especially Black children, who are depicted as amounting to pets or mascots who eventually become threats.
A recent discovery of an unserved 1955 warrant has renewed calls for Dunham’s arrest. The warrant, which charged her along with her late husband and his half-brother John W. Milam with kidnap, was found last month in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi. The two white men, who were subsequently tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, then confessed to their crimes in a paid interview with Look magazine. Double-jeopardy laws prevented them from being tried again, and the Till case remained an open homicide until 2004 when the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the North District of Mississippi opened an investigation into Till’s murder.
Though Donham was listed on the original warrant as “Mrs. Roy Bryant,” she was never arrested by law enforcement officials, who declined to do so because she was a young mother.
Dale Killinger, who was the lead FBI investigator on the Till case from 2004 to 2006 and presented it to a grand jury in 2007, gave another explanation for why the warrant was not served.
“We didn’t find the warrant because we relied on the sheriff’s department, police departments, DA offices, and courts to search their own records,” the retired agent said during a phone call Wednesday. “Had I known that there were boxes of documents under a courthouse related to the case, we would have taken a team down there to search.”
Since the original warrant has not expired and there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping, activists along with relatives of Till and their attorney Jaribu Hill have been pressing law enforcement officials to arrest and charge Donham. District Attorney DeWayne Richardson, who would oversee prosecuting Donham in the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, has remained silent.
If the great journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett were still alive, she might react to the silence of Richardson, a Black man, by repeating the same rhetorical question she asked long ago: “Where are our ‘leaders’ when the race is being burnt, shot, and hanged? Holding good fat offices and saying not a word.”
Till’s family members say the Mississippi authorities are continuing to protect Donham because she is an elderly white woman. Meanwhile, activists and protestors last weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina stormed a senior-citizens apartment building looking for her and demanding that she come out and “face your demons.”
Donham’s previously unknown memoir is yet another key to corroborating evidence in a case that has hit repeated legal roadblocks. Killinger, who was also given a copy of the manuscript to review, says it amounts to new evidence that should be brought before a grand jury.
“The words out of her mouth and the words in her manuscript are direct evidence. They are an admission that a person has made about a boy who ended up dead when she knew he would be harmed,” Killinger said in a phone call on Wednesday.
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker from New York whose research and documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, prompted the Department of Justice to reopen the case in 2004, believes the memoir is damning evidence.
“I’m totally disturbed and outraged by what I’ve read,” Beauchamp said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “This so-called memoir gives us further proof of Carolyn Bryant’s culpability in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. She was afforded the opportunity to evade justice for 67 years and now, in her own words, she gives her own narrative to this dark chapter in American history when the perfect ending to this grave injustice should be justice.”
Donham was in her early 70s when she pulled up a chair and sipped coffee while dictating her memories to her daughter-in-law Marsha. “These are my words and my story,” she writes. “Those terrible days scarred me, and it was hard to heal.”
Despite decades of silence, Donham has clearly stayed abreast of the continuing discussions surrounding Till’s murder. She gives a litany of ways how writers have misrepresented her and gotten facts about her life wrong: “Lies and half-truths appeared in thousands of news stories, and then made their way into books, plays, movies, and novels. As technology progressed, they made the rounds of the Internet.”
Donham spends the first third of the book discussing her coming of age in the 1930s and 1940s. As she shares snapshots of her girlhood, she displays the casual racism of her time and place. She’s able to spin a tale that presents her as an individual with hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities and good and bad times instead of the silent woman with soulless eyes depicted in old black-and-white photos from the past.
Carolyn grew up on the Archer Plantation, about 10 miles outside of Cruger, Mississippi. She describes her father as “an efficient plantation manager,” which to Black people’s ears is code for a white man who succeeded by means of abuse and financial exploitation.
Donham then introduces readers to Annie Freeman, the petite housekeeper with “wrinkle-free skin the color of hot chocolate.” She waxes nostalgically, as old racists often do, about Annie’s warm hugs, which “would make all the hurt and pains disappear.” She’s not specific about those pains. Perhaps she’s referencing the whippings she said she received from branches broken off the peach tree by her mother.
Her family adored Annie. She was part of the family but not really part of the family.
“We loved her, yes, but she was not invited to family outings, picnics, church activities or other family gatherings. She was hired help,” Donham writes.
As a typical Southern white child, Donham struggled to understand and adapt to the racist patriarchy and social mores of the Jim Crow South. As an old woman, she reaches deeper into a trove of tropes to dispel any notion that she is a racist.
Not only did she love the loyal warm Mammy figure, but her “best friend in the world” was a Black girl child, 5-year-old Nellie, who was “just my size.” She describes the girls eating cornbread and collard greens – “green mush” – with their fingers.
Her memories take her back to a local Black church where she gets to cloak herself in goodness by listening to the “glorious singing” of the choir and the “joyful noise” from the congregation.
“There were ‘Amens, Praise the Lords, Hallelujahs’ along with all the stomping and clapping,” Donham writes. It was much more “fun” than the quiet white Methodist church that her family attended.
In one dramatic scene, Donham’s racist Aunt Mabel screams at her and chastises her for perching herself on the back of a bicycle ride with beloved Annie’s son, Barnes.
“It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but the real reason she was upset and yelled at me was because Barnes was a Black boy,” Donham writes.
A few years later, after the death of her father causes the family to fall on hard times, they move to Indianola, Mississippi. Bored one afternoon, she goes on a date with her boyfriend.
“Wanna see the hanging tree? I know where it is,” he says.
Her first thought was, “If I was a ‘Tom Boy,’ I’d think that would be a terrific tree to climb.” Her boyfriend points out a large old, frayed rope partially embedded in the huge tree.
“The rope had been there for a long time because the tree had begun to swallow it,” she writes, “almost as if it wanted to swallow the shame and pain that it had become an unwilling partner to[sic].”
The thought of people laughing and cheering as someone was being lynched made her sick, she says.
“I wanted to go home. It was another rude awakening to the world of hate that I wanted no part of.”
But this supposedly heartfelt proclamation became a fatal lie in August 1955.
After falling in love at age 14 to Roy Bryant, they married, gave birth to their first two sons, and moves to Money, Mississippi in 1953. She describes the store owned by the Bryants, which doubled as their home, as a box with not much room to maneuver around. Most of their customers were Black sharecroppers who purchased goods on store credit. The front porch was always full of people playing checkers with bottle caps.
Wednesday, August 24, 1955, was a slow day in the store. At about 8 p.m., Donham writes, there were nine young people on the porch. Her sister-in-law and children were in the back living area of the building.
“The door opened and a young black man, who appeared to me to be in his late teens or early twenties entered the store,” she writes on page 30.
That man was 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Till asked for candy. Instead of paying, Donham claims that he grabbed her hand, cornered her when she tried to get away, grabbed her hips and made lewd remarks.
“What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it? You needn’t be afraid of me, I’ve f—ked white women before,” she writes.
While reading the language that Donham attributed to a 14-year-old Black boy, one can’t help but recall the similar ventriloquizing of Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed Black teenager who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 by a white cop who described Brown as a hulking figure who grabbed his gun and allegedly said, “You’re too much of a p-ssy to shoot me.”
I have known and met thousands of Black teenage boys in my lifetime, and I can tell you that never in the history of Black boyhood do these young people speak in that linguistic fashion, especially in dangerous encounters with white people.
Donham, who claims she was scared “half to death and felt weak with fear,” writes that her sister-in-law couldn’t hear her screams because they were drowned out by the television, the kids playing, and dinner being cooked for their families in the nearby back kitchen. None of the nine people on the porch heard her screams either.
Donham also put words in her sister-in-law’s mouth.
“Her sister-in-law Juanita told the FBI that she wasn’t in the store that day,” Killinger said. She also told investigators that Carolyn had made up the story about Till to make her husband jealous.
Historical archives are full of narratives of white girls and women making up stories about being sexually assaulted by Black males because they were bored, wanted attention, or needed a cover for illicit consensual sexual relationships or some other unacceptable behavior, even simply arriving late from school or past curfew. Lynchings were a kind of psychodrama that provided whites with the opportunity to relieve family tensions and purge pent-up rage and perceived victimhood by destroying Black bodies.
When her husband returned home, days after the store incident, Donham writes, she attempted to hide the assault from him to protect the Black boy who she saw as a man. But in a small rural town, word spread fast.
In two short chapters titled, “The Nightmare Begins,” and “The Nightmare Continues,” Donham describes the growing tension between her and her husband. What she writes in the memoir does not give the same account that she had told authorities in the past. But she does say that Till was brought to her by her husband and Milam for identification – something that a grand jury has never heard.
While reading this section of the memoir, Killinger says, “It felt to me that she was shifting the blame to Emmett Till.”
She writes: “We got him, but we want to be sure it’s him,” her husband said to her as he and two other men walked into the store holding Till by his arms.
When they asked, “Is that him?” she said no.
“You have the wrong person, it’s NOT him. Take him home, please take him home,” she writes she told them.
In a bizarre moment, she claims that Till then outed himself.
“To my utter disbelief, the young man flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect,” she writes.
Here is a terrified adolescent boy from Chicago on a summer visit to Mississippi, who has just been dragged out of bed in the middle of the night at gunpoint by strange white rednecks. Is it really fathomable that Till would have stood there with such cockiness and maturity in this life-threatening circumstance?
Donham leaves out some other key facts.
She fails to mention that on that same day, she assisted her husband and accomplices during previous attempts to search for and identify her alleged attacker. Two other Black youths were confronted by Roy Bryant and others. One of them was walking out of Money with syrup and snuff when a pickup truck with Roy and Carolyn inside, pulled behind him and stopped. The boy was thrown onto the truck’s flatbed where he broke several of his teeth as he landed.
“That’s not the nigger. That’s not the nigger boy,” the youth recalled Carolyn saying as she took a good look at him before he was thrown back onto the road.
Killinger said this section of the memoir represents at least the third occasion when Donham has admitted to assisting her husband in identifying Black boys.
Donham’s narrative continues with details about the discovery of Till’s body, the arrests of her husband and his half-brother, her awareness of a warrant for her arrest and the stress of constantly moving around to escape harassment. When the not-guilty verdict was reached by the all-white jury, she writes, “we breathed a sigh of relief and joy. We hugged each other and smiles were from ear to ear.”
And then, in the courtroom, she sneaked a look at Till’s heartbroken mother. “I turned my head slightly and caught a glimpse of Mamie Bradley’s face, but Roy snatched my arm and told me to turn back around to stop looking back at her.”
The men still faced kidnapping charges in Leflore County. Donham said she was shocked when the grand jury returned a no-bill on the charge, because of a lack of enough evidence.
“How in the world could they have come to that conclusion?” she asked.
If you read between the lines, her surprise is disingenuous. After all, she was living in an era when no white man had been successfully prosecuted for kidnapping and lynching a Black person. Everything in her upbringing and socialization as a young white woman should have assured her that her family members were safe from prosecution.
“I was happy my husband was now going to be released, but I knew he was a kidnapper, and certainly an accessory to murder,” Donham writes. “I still loved him, but the charges and the trial changed us. This was a turning point in our marriage.”
That is perhaps the only genuinely honest moment in her account of the case as she goes on to describe raggedly the widening gulf and bitterness in her marriage.
The couple divorced and she was subsequently stalked and threatened by Roy. Later she had two more marriages, multiple relocations and a thriving hair salon business. She became a grandmother who relishes the loyalty and love of her family and friends despite being haunted by this old murder.
At multiple junctures in the story, Donham describes her ache for Till’s mother and makes a show of empathizing with her by equating the loss of her adult son who died from a lung illness with the grieving Black mother’s loss. At her son’s funeral, Donham’s thoughts turn to Till’s mother.
“I knew how much I was hurting. I couldn’t imagine the depth of her pain,” she writes. “It is one thing to lose your son in the hospital, but quite a different thing for your own child to have been murdered. I wish could have contacted her, just to say how sorry I was for all the pain Roy and others caused her. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it at the time.”
On the last page of the memoir, Donham writes, “I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett. He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation. Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no! Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss [of] his life. I paid dearly with an altered life.”
The reader is left with the feeling that Carolyn Bryant Donham thinks she’s done a noble thing by telling her story. She has defended the way she lived her life and takes pride in how she has lived despite her mistakes.
For now, she says, “life presses onward, my journey through the forest continues . . . “
It would have been better if she had stayed silent. Clearly, she has learned nothing from the past. She doesn’t even realize that through her ignorance and subterfuge, she has admitted her own complicity in one of the nation’s most heinous crimes. The power of this historical document is that it confirms her own guilt. Let there be no doubt, with all its inconsistencies and fetid gloss, this tale confirms her own guilt.
Worse still, Carolyn Bryant Donham shows no remorse, and ultimately, she damns herself.
Dr. Stacey Patton is an award-winning journalist and author of “Spare The Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America” and the forthcoming “Strung Up: The Lynching of Black Children In Jim Crow America.”