Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusation led to the brutal killing of teenager Emmett Till has died.
Donham, 88, died in hospice care Tuesday night in Louisiana, according to a coroner’s report.
The kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Till attracted international attention when his mother Mamie Till Mobley insisted on holding an open-casket funeral so the world could see his brutalized body. The photos of Till’s body were published in Jet Magazine.
In 1955, 21-year-old Donham, then called Carolyn Bryant, accused Till of making improper advances on her at a grocery store in the small town of Money, Mississippi.
Evidence shows that a woman identified Till to Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam. Milam and Bryant abducted Till from his great-uncle Moses Wright’s home and later killed him. Till’s body was found days later in the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant and Milam were charged with Till’s murder, but an all-white jury acquitted them. The two men later confessed to the killing in an interview with Look magazine.
Ollie Gordon, Till’s cousin, said she has mixed emotions about Donham’s death.
“She was never tried in the court of man,” Gordan said. “But I think she was judged by God, and his wrath is more punitive than any judgment or penalty she could have gotten in a courtroom. I don’t think she had a pleasant or happy life.”
In 2022, the Associated Press obtained an unpublished memoir by Donham where she stated that she was “unaware of what would happen to Till.”
Historian and author Timothy Tyson of Durham, North Carolina obtained a copy from Donham while interviewing her in 2008 before providing a copy to AP.
Tyson placed the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina but gave it to the FBI during an investigation the agency concluded in 2021. Tyson made the manuscript public after an unserved arrest warrant for kidnapping charges issued for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” from 1955 were found in the basement of a Leflore County, Mississippi, courthouse.
“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 of Mississippi did anything to prevent or punish this murder. Condemning what Donham did is easier than confronting what America was – and is.”
Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, filed a lawsuit to serve the 1955 warrant, but a grand jury in Leflore County declined to indict Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter in connection with Till’s death.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation posted a blank black square to social media sites after news of Donham’s death was reported.