JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 has died in hospice care in Louisiana, a coroner’s report shows. Carolyn Bryant Donham was 88.
Donham died Tuesday night in Westlake, Louisiana, according to a death report filed Thursday in Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office in Louisiana.
Till’s kidnapping and killing became a catalyst for the civil rights movement when his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in their hometown of Chicago after his brutalized body was pulled from a river in Mississippi. Jet magazine published photos.
Till traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. Donham — then 21 and named Carolyn Bryant — accused him of making improper advances on her at a grocery store where she was working in the small community of Money. The Rev. Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till who was there, has said 14-year-old Till whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi’s racist social codes of the era.
Evidence indicates a woman identified Till to Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, who killed the teenager. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men in the killing, but the men later confessed in an interview with Look magazine.
In an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press in 2022, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to Till.
The contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled “I am More Than A Wolf Whistle,” were first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Historian and author Timothy Tyson of Durham, North Carolina, who said he obtained a copy from Donham while interviewing her in 2008, provided a copy to the AP.
Tyson had placed the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the agreement that it not be made public for decades, though he said he gave it to the FBI during an investigation the agency concluded in 2021. He said he decided to make it public after some of Till’s relatives and other people doing research at the Leflore County, Mississippi, courthouse in June 2022 found an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges that was issued for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” in 1955 but never served.
Tyson said in a statement Thursday that Donham’s precise role in the killing of Till remains murky, but it’s clear she was involved.
“It has comforted America to see this as merely a story of monsters, her among them,” Tyson said. “What this narrative keeps us from seeing is the monstrous social order that cared nothing for the life of Emmett Till nor thousands more like him. Neither the federal government nor the government of Mississippi did anything to prevent or punish this murder. Condemning what Donham did is easier than confronting what America was — and is.”
Last year, members of the New Black Panther Party and other activists, began showing up at addresses associated with the aging Donham, including in North Carolina and Kentucky. They were there to serve unofficial “warrants” for her arrest and trial.
Weeks after the unserved arrest warrant was found, the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said there was no new evidence to pursue a criminal case against Donham. In August, a district attorney said a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Donham.
Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, filed a federal lawsuit against the current Leflore County Sheriff, Ricky Banks, on Feb. 7, seeking to compel him to serve the 1955 warrant on Donham. In a response April 13, Banks’ attorney said there was no point serving the warrant on Donham because the grand jury did not indict her last year.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, run by some of Till’s relatives, posted a blank black square to social media sites Thursday after news of Donham’s death was reported.