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Carolyn Bryant Donham, Woman at Center of Emmett Till Murder, Dead at 88

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: AnCrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images
Photo Credit: AnCrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Emmett Till was just 14 years old when he was murdered while visiting his family in Money, Mississippi in 1955. It was reported that Till went into a store owned by Carolyn Bryant (now Donham) and her husband to buy some candy where he may have wolf-whistled at her on his way out. Word of this got back to her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam.

A few days later, Bryant and Milam snuck into the home where Till was staying and forced him into their truck. His body was found three days later, disposed of in a river, badly beaten and shot in the head. Despite there being eyewitness accounts leading to his kidnappers, no one has ever been convicted. In February of 2023, a relative of Till’s filed suit demanding that the sheriff arrest Carolyn Bryant Donham, but a grand jury in Leflore County declined to indict her on charges. She died in April of 2023.

Beginning of the investigation

Bryant was picked up early on in the investigation. He admitted to kidnapping Till, but said that he released him unharmed. Milam later turned himself in, but when the body was discovered both men were charged with murder.

Black and white photo of a young boy lying down with his head resting on his hand.
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed, 1954. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Carolyn Bryant, one of the witnesses in the trial, began embellishing the story of what happened in the grocery store, telling reporters she would testify that Till mauled her and made indecent proposals. Bryant and Milam’s defense essentially became justifiable homicide, based on what Carolyn testified happened in the store. Neither man testified during the trial.

Acquitted of murder

Bryant and Milam’s defense attorney said in his closing arguments to the all-white, male jury that if they didn’t free the pair that “[y]our ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” Neither Bryant nor Milam were charged, despite significant evidence presented in the trial that they were guilty.

Black and white photo of two men with their arms around an older woman, their mother.
Defendants in the Emmett Till murder case, John W. Milam (left) and Roy Bryant, are shown with their mother, Mrs. Eula Lee Bryant in court. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Not only was evidence given in the trial that proved their guilt, but they confessed to the murder of Emmett Till in an interview with Look magazine after the trial concluded. They said that they had killed him and just how they had done it.

Reopening the case

The case has been reopened a number of times over the past 70 years. It was first opened by the Department of Justice in 2004 as part of their Cold Case Initiative, which investigated historic racially motivated murders. Even though they opened an investigation, they decided that they lacked jurisdiction to bring forward federal charges.

Black and white photo of two women sitting staring at a newspaper.
Carolyn Bryant (left) and Juanita Milam, the wives of Roy Bryant and John William Milam, who stand accused of the kidnap and murder of Emmett Till, sitting in their husbands’ lawyer’s office, 1955. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

It was reopened again by the FBI in 2017 after Professor Timothy Tyson published evidence from a 2008 interview with Carolyn Bryant in his book, The Blood of Emmett Till, where she revealed that she wasn’t truthful in her testimony. When she was asked by the FBI about recanting her testimony, she denied it. They concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove she lied about this and the case was closed again.

Family calls for action

While no one was prosecuted for the murder of Emmett Till, a group of people began looking through old trial documents for more evidence about his death. A search started by the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, including Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, and her daughter, Teri Watts, turned up new information in the case.

They found a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham due to her identifying Till to the men who killed him. The warrant was even reported in the papers after Till’s death but it was never served because the Sheriff didn’t want to bother the mother of two.

Coloured photo of family standing at a press conference surrounded by paintings of a young boy dressed for different careers.
Deborah Watts speaks during a press conference inside the Mississippi State Capitol Building, March 2022. (Photo Credit: Peter Forest/ Getty Images for MoveOn & Emmett Till Legacy Foundation)

The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation called for authorities to use the warrant to arrest Carolyn Bryant Donham. They argued that the discovery of this warrant marks new evidence in the case. An attorney working with the family said that there was no evidence that the warrant was dismissed so it could still be used.

Bryant Donham was seen for the first time in 20 years

With the discovery of the old arrest warrant, interest in Carolyn Bryant Donham was again sparked. After the discovery, protestors visited a residence in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is where they believed she was living. They delivered an eviction notice to the location as well as to another potential address where she might live.

When they arrived, however, they were informed by another resident that she no longer lived there. They left when told she lived in a different retirement home. Investigators later discovered her living elsewhere in the US. The Daily Mail reportedly tracked her down, claiming she lived in an undisclosed town in Kentucky with her son.

For almost 20 years she stayed out of the public eye and the investigation was the first time that the public has seen her since she was living in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2004. She was on end-of-life care in a shared apartment, suffering from cancer as well as being legally blind. 

When the Daily Mail went to the door and asked if she would discuss the events of Emmett Till’s death, her son shook his head “no” while Bryant Donham stood beside him without making any comments. 

A grand jury declined to indict

Just days after she was sighted, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict Bryant Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter. A grand jury heard seven hours of testimony from witnesses and investigators but said there was insufficient evidence for an indictment.

A plaque at the grave of Emmett Till
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery May 4, 2005 in Aslip, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson issued a statement regarding the decision. “After hearing every aspect of the investigation and evidence collected regarding Donham’s involvement, the Grand Jury returned a ‘No Bill’ to the charges of both Kidnapping and Manslaughter. The murder of Emmett Till remains an unforgettable tragedy in this country and the thoughts and prayers of this nation continue to be with the family of Emmett Till.”

A 2023 lawsuit

In a federal lawsuit filed in early February of 2023, one of Emmett Till’s relatives demanded that Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks serve an arrest warrant to Carolyn Bryant Donham. Till’s cousin, Patricia Sterling of Jackson, Mississippi, filed the suit. “We are using the available means at our disposal to try to achieve justice on behalf of the Till family,” Sterling’s attorney Trent Walker told The Associated Press. At the time, records showed that the lawsuit was not delivered.

Statue of Emmett Till in front of a blue sky
A statue of Emmett Till is unveiled on October 21, 2022 in Greenwood, Mississippi. 14-year old Emmett Till. (Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Carolyn Bryant Donham died on April 25, 2023. She was 88 years old.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.