Duke Scholar: Key Witness In Emmett Till Case Gave False Testimony

Duke Scholar: Key Witness In Emmett Till Case Gave False Testimony

9:55am Jan 31, 2017
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His death became a rallying point in the early days of the civil rights movement. Credit: Wikimedia creative commons

Research from a Duke University scholar is adding new insights into the death of Emmett Till - a 14-year-old black child who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. A new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by Duke historian Timothy B. Tyson shows testimony that he made physical and verbal threats against a white woman just before he was killed is false.  

The death became a rallying point in the early days of the civil rights movement. Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi at the time. He was tortured and brutally killed following an encounter at a store with a white woman, Carolyn Donham.

Donham's then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted by the all-white jury. Both men, who later told Look magazine they did murder Till, have since died. Milam's widow, Juanita Milam, would later tell the FBI she believed that Carolyn Bryant had fabricated her story. Juanita Milam died in 2014. The Justice Department re-examined the case a decade ago, but no one was indicted as a murderer or an accomplice.

Tyson says he interviewed the woman twice in 2008 and had planned for the material to go to the University of North Carolina archives before he ended up using it in the book.

"She told me that 'Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,'" said Tyson, whose previous books include "Blood Done Sign My Name" and "Radio Free Dixie."

On Saturday, the maker of a documentary on Till said he had long been sure that Bryant's story was false.

"His mother had mentioned that Emmett had a speech impediment and that the things Bryant claimed he was saying he could not have said easily," said Keith Beauchamp, whose "The Untold Story of Emmett Till" came out in 2005.

Tyson said that he spoke with Donham after her daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, contacted him. Bryant had read "Blood Done Sign My Name," about a racist murder during his childhood in Oxford, North Carolina, and invited Tyson to meet with her and Donham.

Tyson said he and Donham had two conversations, both lasting 2-3 hours, and that he planned at the time to place the material in the archives at the University of North Carolina. Asked why he waited so long to publicize his findings, he responded that historians think in different terms than do journalists.

"I'm more interested in what speaks to the ages than in what is the latest media thing," he said.

He added that he wasn't sure whether Donham knew about the book. He said he had fallen out of touch with the family and that when he last spoke with Bryant, a few years ago, she said Donham was in poor health.

Till was a fun-loving teenager from Chicago visiting the Mississippi Delta and helping out on his great-uncle Mose Wright's farm. On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and some other kids drove to a local store, Bryant's, for refreshments. At Bryant's, some of the kids stayed on the porch, watching a game of checkers, while the others filed inside to buy bubble gum and sodas. Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old wife of proprietor Roy Bryant, was behind the counter.

Accounts of what happened next differ.

Mrs. Bryant claimed Emmett bragged about dating white women up north. She said he grabbed her and asked her, "How about a date, baby?" Simeon Wright, his cousin, heard none of this. But there is no doubt about what he heard when they left the store, he told the AP in 2005.

Standing on the front porch, Emmett let out a wolf whistle.

Carolyn Donham's whereabouts have long been a mystery, but North Carolina voter rolls list a Carolyn Holloway Donham. Holloway is her maiden name.

The address is for a green, split-level home in Raleigh at the mouth of a neat cul-de-sac just two turns off a busy four-lane thoroughfare. The well-tended house has burnt-orange shutters and a front-facing brick chimney decorated with a large metal sunburst. Orange flags emblazed with the word "Google" dot the lawn.

A woman, who appeared to be of late middle age, and a small barking dog appeared at the front door. When a reporter asked if this was the Bryant family home, the woman replied, "Yes."

When asked if Carolyn Donham was at home, the woman replied, "She's not available."

At first, she refused to accept a business card, but relented after hearing about the upcoming book.

The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation has shared news reports about the book on Instagram and asked if Donham would have the "decency and courage" to speak with Till's relatives.

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