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Carolyn Bryant Donham, woman at center of Emmett Till's kidnapping and killing, dies at 88

Donham set off the case in August 1955 by accusing the Black teenager of making improper advances at a store in Money, Mississippi. Till's brutal murder was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
Carolyn Bryant and Juanita Milam
Carolyn Bryant, left, and her sister-in-law, Juanita Milam, posed five days before their husbands went on trial in the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Sumner, Miss., in September 1955.AP file
/ Source: Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — 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 the 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.

Emmett Till
Emmett Till.AP file

Till traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. Donham — then named Carolyn Bryant — accused him of making improper advances on her at a grocery store 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 her 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.

Just months ago, Till's cousin filed a federal lawsuit against the current Leflore County, Mississippi, sheriff, seeking to compel him to serve an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges that was issued for Donham in 1955 but never served.

A team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence about the lynching found the warrant in June 2022. The discovery prompted calls from Till's relatives for authorities to arrest Donham, but a grand jury in Leflore County declined to indict her on charges of manslaughter and kidnapping.

In an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press in 2022, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old Till. Donham was 21 at the time.

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, 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 last year. He said he decided to make it public following the discovery of the arrest warrant.