Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose accusation led to murder of Emmett Till, dies at 88

In August of 1955, Carolyn Bryant, age 21, accused Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, of making sexual advances toward her in her husband’s store in Money, Mississippi.

From the New York Times:

With Bryant’s death, the truth of what happened that August day may now never be clear. At the time, she said she did not know she would be putting Till in danger, a statement doubted at the time as she lived in the Jim Crow South. More than half a century after the murder, she admitted that she had perjured herself on the witness stand to make Till’s conduct sound more threatening than it actually was — serving, in the words of the historian to whom she made the admission, as “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie.” But in an unpublished memoir that surfaced last year, Mrs. Bryant stood by her earlier description of events, though she said she had tried to discourage her husband from harming Till.

Carolyn Bryant with her husband, Roy Bryant, and their children during his trial in 1955. Credit…Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Shutterstock

From ABC:

Carolyn Bryant Donham, age 88, died today in Westlake, Louisiana with no arrest or indictment for her role in the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955. Till was visiting family in Mississippi in the Summer of 1955. Outside of a store, Donham alleged that Till whistled at her, grabbed her hand and touched her waist.

(Original Caption) Mrs. Roy Bryant, wife of the defendant who was on trial for the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till for whistling at his wife, and her sons are shown leaving the place called Sharkey Community. It was here, allegedly, that all the trouble started.

From NPR:

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. Till’s cousin, then 16, is the last living witness of the kidnapping of Emmet Till. He remembers the incident at the store. Nearly 70 years later, he will still break down in tears when he describes what happened.

Till was not familiar with the strict racist dynamics that governed every interaction between Black people and white people in the south. The slightest infraction of the mores of the Jim Crow south could lead to violence and death. During the trip, Parker and Till and other relatives went to a store. On the way out, Till whistled at a white woman.

“He loved to have pranks, so he whistled. He gave her the wolf whistle,” Parker said. “When he did that, we could have died. Nobody said, ‘Let’s go.’ We just made a beeline for the car.”

Mr. & Mrs. Roy (Carolyn) Bryant (left) with Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Milam showed happiness at a the verdict delivered in Sumner, Miss. Friday, September 23, 1955. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted in the murder of Emmett Till. In February, 2007, a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Carolyn (Bryant) Donham on criminal charges. The Chicago youth was killed for allegedly wolf whistling at Mrs. Roy Bryant at a store owned by her husband in Money, Miss. in August 1955. His body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River near Phillip on August 31. He had been beaten and shot once in the head. A 70-pound cotton gin fan was tied with barbed wire around his neck. The district attorney in rural Leflore County, Miss. had sought a manslaughter charge against Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was suspected of pointing out to her husband to punish the boy, but a February 2007 grand jury refused to bring any new charges. (Courtesy Special Collections / University of Memphis Libraries) ( Following excerpted from The Commercial Appeal Sept. 24, 1955 1A story by William Sorrells ) “I feel a lot better,” the attractive 21-year-old mother (Mrs. Roy Bryant) sighed, leaning on the shoulder of her stocky husband, a former paratrooper. “We feel so good,” Bryant chimed in. They smiled happily as photographers took over. Milam reached over, pulled his pretty wife to his shoulder. “I feel fine,” he said. “But I’m going to get me a wig.” There was testimony throught the trial about “a big bald-headed man.”

Mrs. Bryant, more recently known as Carolyn Bryant Donham, died in Hospice Care. On Thursday, Megan LeBoeuf, the chief investigator for the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office in Louisiana, sent a statement confirming the death in Westlake, a small city in southern Louisiana. Ms. LeBoeuf did not provide further information.