A Boy Named Emmett
By Devery Anderson
Copyright © 2006
Author’s Note: What follows is a small excerpt from the first chapter of my forthcoming book on the Emmett Till case. In order to preserve the integrity of my manuscript, I have removed the footnotes, as well as quotes from some of the recent interviews I have conducted. They, as well as all footnotes, will appear in my book once it is published. This excerpt is copyrighted, and any photocopying or distribution of its contents, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.
When eighteen year-old Mamie Carthan met Louis Till, a young man three months her junior, and nine inches taller, she was impressed by his sophistication and confidence. Born in Missouri and orphaned, Louis had just recently moved to Argo, Illinois, to work for the Corn Products Refining Company. He was also a part-time boxer and a skilled gambler. Mamie, naïve and sheltered her entire life, hardly resembled Louis’s worldliness and sophistication. Although they began dating, their differences created a dysfunctional relationship between them from the beginning. “He treated me like I was a little girl and took me for granted like [I was] a doll you would sit on a shelf and find it there when you came back,” Mamie said in 1956. Alma Gaines, Mamie’s mother, saw little she admired in Louis, and persuaded Mamie to break up with him. Later, however, after Louis saw Mamie out with another boy, he created such a scene in front of her house that Alma came out and scolded them both. Alma’s actions may have backfired. “I flared up [and told her] that I was grown up and wasn’t a child anymore,” said Mamie. “It was then, I guess, that I made up my mind I was going to marry Louis Till.” The wedding took place in Alma’s living room on October 14, 1940.
After their wedding, Louis moved in with Mamie, Alma, and Alma’s second husband, Tom Gaines. Mamie was working at Coffey School of Aeronautics as a typist, and Louis was still at Corn Products. By Mamie’s estimation, she conceived their first (and only) child on her first sexual encounter—-her wedding night. As the pregnancy progressed, a family friend nicknamed her unborn child “Bobo.” It stuck, even though Mamie had been favoring the nickname, “Mickey.”
After six months of living with the Gaines’s, Louis and Mamie rented their own apartment. No one was happier than Louis, who had come to resent Mamie’s close relationship with Alma. Louis couldn’t really be blamed, as Mamie admits that while living with her mother, she and Louis felt obligated to ask permission even to go to the movies. “Mama’s hold on me had been so strong that I didn’t realize that I was fully grown until I was nineteen years old and had been married for six months.” Louis hoped that with the move would come some independence. But as Mamie discovered, “I was no more prepared for independence than a new-born lamb strayed from its mother.” Consequently, she still turned to Alma for advice and just about everything else. Perhaps because of this, in contrast to his lonely upbringing, when, as an orphan, he was shuffled from place to place, Louis seemed little interested in the coming baby. Or, perhaps he felt out of place. Whatever the reason, he was not present when Mamie gave birth to their child, a boy, who she named after an uncle, Emmett Carthan, and Louis. Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, at Cook County Hospital, in Chicago. And he would forever retain the nickname “Bobo,” or simply, “Bo.”
It was not an easy delivery, and doctors discovered that Emmett was coming out as a breech baby. Because of the harsh instruments used in the birth, Emmett’s right hand was swollen and a knee was bruised. Doctors told Alma that Emmett’s injuries would be permanent, and recommended that he be placed in a home with others with such physical challenges. Mamie refused to even consider that, insisting that she and her mother had what it took to help him overcome any limitations. Yet Mamie remained quite ill herself following the delivery, and only after about a month of being in and out of the hospital were Mamie and Emmett both home permanently. Proving the doctors wrong, by the time Emmett was two years old, he had healed completely from the injuries related to his birth.
In Mamie’s early memoirs, she speaks more sympathetically about Louis than she does later on. In 1956, she said he was “kind and patient with me” when she returned from the hospital. “In his way, he meant well and I guess he did the best he could.” Yet, he struggled. Despite the fact that he “was happy-go-lucky by nature,” Louis also “had a hot, gusty temper that sometimes got him in trouble.” Once, when Emmett was only a few weeks old, Louis came home from work and found that Mamie was at Alma’s. When she came back late, Louis was angry, hungry, and according to Mamie, they “had a stormy scene.” Mamie left, and went back to Alma’s, but she and Louis soon reconciled.
When Mamie wrote of the above incident, she does not speak specifically of any violence. Whether any occurred that night is unknown, but years later, Mamie was able to write about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Louis Till. And the night she stood her ground marked the beginning of the end of their marriage. That night, Louis came home drunk and started a fight over Mamie eating some greens sent over by her mother. She ignored his demands to stop eating, but “the next thing I knew, he had pounced on me,” she wrote. “I didn’t know what to do at that moment, but knew I was no match for Louis Till. I found myself on the floor with Louis choking me, squeezing my neck as I coughed up the greens, squeezing harder and harder until I just blacked out.” When she woke up, Louis was gone. Knowing that he would be back, however, she took a poker and heated it in the fireplace. She also boiled a pot of water, and waited in the dark for Louis’s return. When he came home, Mamie took the water and threw it at him before he could even see it coming. Screaming, he ran to Alma’s where she began to peel his shirt—-and his skin—-from his back. Mamie soon got a restraining order against him and moved back in with Alma. After Louis violated the order repeatedly, he and Mamie went back to court. The judge gave Louis the choice between going to jail or going into the Army. He chose the Army. He entered basic training July 9, 1942. Beginning August 1, he instituted the required Class F allotment to provide support for his family at $22.00 per month.
At Alma’s, Mamie was back to the familiar surroundings of comfort and safety that she had always known. Emmett’s presence helped to create an unusual bond, as Mamie described:
As far as he was concerned, he had two Mamas. And, as far as my mother was concerned, she had two babies. Yes, now it was two children for Mama. I was the big kid, Emmett was the little kid. And this was the beginning of the special relationship we always would have. We were so much like brother and sister, like friends back then, and it added a unique dimension to the mother-son bond we would forge over the years ahead.
In October 1942, young Emmett took his first trip to Mississippi, accompanying Alma as she went to help her sister, Elizabeth Wright, with the birth of her thirteenth child, a son she would name Simeon. They had already returned when, a month later, Louis suddenly showed up on Mamie’s doorstep unannounced, wearing his military uniform. Despite their troubled past, the Tills spent time together and for the first time, Louis bonded with his son. Mamie and Louis even decided to reconcile. However, before they could make too many plans, Louis was picked up by the military police because as it turned out, he had gone AWOL. “That was the last I ever saw him,” said Mamie.
Comparing the two versions of her early life, written by Mamie decades apart, it is clear that she was unwilling, or not ready, to talk about the abuse that destroyed her marriage, until she wrote the fuller account of her life shortly before her death in 2003. And although she could refer briefly to Alma’s strict nature in a 1956 publication her mother would be sure to read, it was not until twenty years after Alma’s death that Mamie was able to write specifically about the negative aspects of that upbringing. Mamie’s own growth in the intervening years allowed her to tell her story without the need to protect Louis, or even her mother, wherever either had failed her.
Mamie began a new job working for the federal government in 1943, and for the next few years, Louis sent money regularly. In addition to the military allotment, he also sent money he received from boxing and gambling. Mamie said the money averaged $400.00 per month, which, turned over to Alma for managing, resulted in a savings account for Mamie of around $5000.
In the summer of 1945, however, Mamie learned that the money from Louis had come to an end. On July 13, she received a telegram from the Department of Defense telling her that her husband had been executed in Italy eleven days earlier for “willful misconduct.” Mamie, so overcome with shock and emotion at reading the news, fainted. There was no other explanation in the telegram, and none in the letter she received a few days later from a chaplain in Italy. Soon, she received Louis’s personal belongings. Among them was a ring, purchased in Casablanca, engraved with his initials, LT, and the date, MAY 1943. Emmett would never know his father, nor what led to his death. For a few years, Mamie herself knew none of the details that caused his execution, and just what she eventually learned is unclear. In 1948, she hired lawyer and family friend, Joseph Tobias, to write the Department of the Army to find out her rights as a widow. According to Mamie, Tobias was told that in cases of “willful misconduct,” next-of-kin are not entitled to benefits. But because Mamie and Louis had separated before he went into the Army, he had listed his uncle, Lee Green, as his next-of-kin anyway. Although Mamie says she never received a “satisfactory answer” pertaining to the reason Louis was executed, Army records indicate that in 1948, officials did furnish Tobias with a copy of the court-martial record of trial. Although it is possible that Tobias did not share the details with Mamie, it is unlikely. Therefore, Mamie probably knew more than she would later claim she knew long before the details went public. Ironically, her silence would add to the sensationalism once those details leaked out. But that was still a decade away.
The year 1945 also saw the death of Mamie’s step-father, Tom Gaines. For a time, Mamie had Alma all to herself again, and Alma was as overprotective as ever. Upon Louis Till’s death, Alma made Mamie a promise that she would help her raise Emmett until he was eighteen years old.
In the fall of 1946, Emmett started kindergarten, attending Wharton School in Argo. Although he made friends there, it was the arrival of the Parker family from Mississippi in January 1947 that brought him his greatest joy, for Wheeler Parker, Jr., his cousin, and the son of Wheeler and Hallie Mae Parker, became his best friend. In Money, Mississippi, Wheeler, who was two years older than Emmett, had attended a one-room schoolhouse, and to catch up where his former school system failed him, he had to repeat the first grade after enrolling at Wharton. The Parkers, with their three children, moved in to the house next door to Alma, Mamie, and Emmett, which Alma’s brother, Crosby Smith had vacated a few years earlier when he moved back to Mississippi. Wheeler and Emmett were inseparable, always at play, often with Wheeler’s two brothers as well as other kids in the neighborhood. Alma would sometimes take the boys fishing in the Des Plaines River. Once, after dropping a fish he had struggled to catch, Emmett dipped it back in the water to clean it off, only to have it wiggle out of his hands and swim away. Despite losing his hard-earned catch, Emmett and Wheeler laughed. Even then, Emmett’s sense of fun trumped what could have been for most kids, a disappointment.
At the end of the summer of 1947, just before he started first grade, Emmett began exhibiting unusual behavior, especially at night, described by Mamie as lethargy. After a few days of this, including a rise in his temperature, she and Alma decided to use home remedies to nurse him out of the mysterious ailment. When that didn’t work, they called the doctor, who came and diagnosed him with polio. “I felt ill,” Mamie said of her reaction to the news. “Mama nearly collapsed. Polio was the worst thing that could happen to you back then. It didn’t kill you, but it could take your life away from you just the same.”
The doctor told Mamie to get Emmett to the hospital at once. This proved difficult because no one would lend them their car for fear of contracting the disease themselves. They were even turned down by an ambulance. Finally, they were forced to ride in a police car to the Contagious Disease Center, where Emmett spent the next two weeks. Once he was released, he had to be quarantined at home. No one could come to the house, and Alma sat with him constantly while Mamie was at work. Thankfully, he showed no sign of brain damage or any major damage to his limbs. Finally, on one of his visits to Emmett, the doctor released him from quarantine and declared him well. The whole ordeal lasted about thirty days. “He had beaten it,” said Mamie, who with Alma, spent the month praying for his recovery. “He was up and running again and practically tore a hole in the screen to get out.”
Although it could have been much worse, the disease did have a lasting effect upon Emmett. He developed a speech defect that caused severe stuttering. “When he got excited or nervous, it was particularly bad. Nobody could understand him but Mama and me,” said Mamie. He would later take speech therapy classes, which helped somewhat, but the doctors said he would eventually outgrow the impediment. His ankles remained weakened also, and he had to start wearing a special shoe for support. The episode also made Alma determined never to have to beg for a ride or face humiliation when an emergency arose again. To remedy that, she went out and bought a car--a 1941 Oldsmobile.
Other childhood illnesses followed Emmett’s bout with polio. “He was sick a lot of the time,” said Mamie in 1955. “He was always catching everything that came around. Measles, mumps, everything, keeping him out of school for days at a time.”
That same year, Alma married her third husband, Henry Spearman, and moved to nearby Chicago. Mamie and Emmett stayed behind, and for the first time ever, Mamie was on her own. There were other relatives nearby, and Alma was less than a dozen miles away, but life would be different. For the next three years Mamie and Emmett remained in Argo. Mamie said her “whole mind was on working and saving for Bo’s college education.” She worked for the Army Signal Corps and then took a job with the Veteran’s Administration. Her work was interrupted when she had to be hospitalized to undergo surgery for appendicitis. In 1948, she began work as a typist for the Social Security Administration.
Perhaps Alma’s absence helped Mamie realize that having two to raise a child was better than one, but what she wanted was a father for Emmett. She had been without a man in her life since Louis and her separated in 1942. And according to Mamie, there were no prospects for her in Argo because most of the men in their small community were married. So also, she discovered, was the man from nearby Maywood who did take her out.
In 1950, Mamie’s cousin, Ruby, convinced her that Detroit would be her answer for romance, and that there she could probably find a man with a good job in the automobile industry. Mamie’s parents had divorced when she was about twelve or thirteen years old. Her father, Wiley Nash Carthan, had also moved to Detroit and was remarried. Moving there would give him and Mamie the opportunity to rebuild their relationship. Although they had recently established some contact, they hadn’t seen each other in years, and Nash had never met his grandson. He was happy to have them both come, and Mamie enthusiastically made arrangements to leave Argo and move to Detroit.
Mamie and Emmett moved in temporarily with Nash and his wife, A.D. Mamie soon began work as a typist at the Ft. Wayne Induction Center, a job that kept her working long hours, seven days a week. Nash did get a chance to bond with Emmett and be a father to Mamie, something she had longed for. However, because A.D. began to resent the inconveniences of having a full house, Nash arranged for Mamie and Emmett to move in with a family he knew by the name of Harris. They welcomed them both and doted over Emmett, making the stay in Detroit more enjoyable. And nine-year-old Emmett became a help around the house, taking it upon himself to clean, and even to fix a roach problem that had plagued the Harris kitchen. With no prior experience, young Emmett seemed to know just what to do.
Mamie didn’t forget her mission of finding a man. Juanita, another cousin, soon introduced her to her fiancé’s neighbor, Pink Bradley, one of those men in Detroit with the good job in the automobile industry. He worked for Chrysler and was doing well, and he and Mamie began dating. He also got along well with Emmett. However, Emmett became increasingly unhappy in Detroit, missing his friends and family in Argo. Reluctantly, Mamie allowed him to go back, where he moved in with his Uncle Kid and Aunt Marie, next door to the house he was raised in. Mamie saw this move as temporary, and planned to move him back to Detroit as soon as she found a place of their own.
Meanwhile, she and Pink kept dating, and the feeling it gave her got the best of her. “I have to admit, I was so flattered by the attention, and that somebody wanted me, that I was not over the hill.” She and Pink were married on May 5, 1951, after dating only a few months. Alma and Emmett came for the wedding, and Emmett stayed briefly, but soon he decided once again that he would rather be in Argo.
The honeymoon seemed to end quickly with Mamie’s second marriage. Pink was laid off from Chrysler soon after the wedding, and according to Mamie, he wasn’t interested in finding a new job. Mamie took a train back to Chicago to visit Emmett once a month, and discovered that her son was getting used to a life without her. After talking with Alma, she decided it was time to leave Detroit and move to Chicago, where Alma had purchased a two-flat home on South St. Lawrence Street. Mamie had earlier bought her first car, a 1947 Plymouth, and in November, 1951, she and Pink packed it up and headed to Chicago. Like the other men in her life, Pink found employment at Corn Products and Mamie got a job at the Social Security Administration. Emmett, now in fifth grade, began attending James McCosh Elementary School, so named after a nineteenth century Princeton University president. McCosh was made up of 1,600 black students, and a racially mixed faculty. Although Emmett was no longer in his old Argo neighborhood, one benefit for him and Mamie was that the house in Chicago was closer to Alma.
Mamie describes Pink’s relationship with Emmett as good, but that they weren’t “buddy-buddy.” And although he settled in well in Chicago with his wife and stepson, Pink couldn’t wait for the weekends, when he would take Mamie’s car and visit his friends and family in Detroit. They managed to stay together in Chicago about a year, until around Christmas 1952, when Mamie overheard Pink making a date with another woman. When he left the house that night, Mamie threw his belongings on the front lawn and changed the locks. They may have gotten back together briefly, as Mamie states in her earlier memoirs that their separation was in August 1953. At any rate, her quest to find a father for Emmett only resulted in heartbreak. Yet she made a resolve: “After that it was Bo and me. Disappointed in my marriage, I intently set myself to make Bo the kind of man every mother wants her son to be.”
Over the next few years, Emmett would, in return, increasingly demonstrate his love for and loyalty to his mother. Perhaps the most dramatic way he did that was the night that Pink came to the house soon after he and Mamie separated, hoping to talk to his estranged family. Emmett, sick with the flu, heard Pink’s voice as he headed toward his room. Emmett met him at his doorway, with a butcher knife in his hand. “Pink, Mama wants you to go and I think you should go,” Emmett demanded. “And if you put your hands on her, I will cut you.” Mamie stepped in and quickly escorted Pink out of the house. She also scolded Emmett about the dangerous situation he had placed himself in, and warned him to call the police if he was ever in a similar circumstance. However, Mamie saw some significance to the episode: “For Bo and me, this was a turning point. We formed a new and stronger bond. It was almost like a partnership. He started taking on more responsibility.” Mamie also described their relationship as one of brother and sister. “We had no secrets from each other. We talked and argued everything out.” Alma, living several miles away, still got involved when either Mamie or Emmett would call her and tell on the other for something that he or she did. Alma would scold whoever she thought was to blame. “Mama kept us both in check,” Mamie admits.
It was around this time that Emmett made Mamie a deal. Since Mamie was working and earning a living for the two of them, Emmett would cook and do the housework. He even took upon himself the job of laying linoleum in the kitchen when a snow storm prevented the man who was to do it from coming over. According to Mamie, he completed the job perfectly.
Mamie eventually left the Social Security Administration and took a better job with the U. S. Air Force, where she was put in charge of the confidential files. Also, love would soon enter her life again, and this time, she would find what she had always longed for. In 1953, while getting a manicure in a South Side barber shop, she met a barber named Gene Mobley. Mamie would see Mobley there as she came back each month for her nail appointment, and a year later, Mobley asked her to dinner. Because she didn’t feel like cooking, and since Emmett was away visiting family, she accepted. After this first date, they saw more of each other, and the relationship eventually turned serious. Twelve year-old Emmett and Mobley developed a close parent-child relationship. Years later, Gene Mobley looked back with fondness at those memories. “Oh yes, he was my buddy, because anything I would tell him to do for me, he would always do it and leave me a note telling me the results.” Mobley also had two daughters of his own, and was, like Mamie, separated from his spouse.
Over the next year, Emmett continued to grow, became a teenager on July 25, 1954, and seemed to live to have fun with his friends and be a help to his mother. Five months later, Christmas proved to be the best he and Mamie had ever had. Mamie insisted on it—-but at the time, she couldn’t really explain why. “I certainly didn’t need to be going too deeply into debt. But something just came over me. Call it the Christmas spirit.” She gave Emmett a hundred dollars to pick out and buy his own gifts for family. On Christmas day, he received a new suit from Mamie, a hat, tie, and coat from Gene, and Mamie was host to a large Christmas dinner for her extended family. To remember the occasion, Mamie asked a co-worker to take several pictures. Most of the now familiar photos of Emmett Till that the public has seen were taken on this occasion: Emmett in his new suit, a close up of him in the wide brimmed hat that Gene had given him, one of him leaning against the family television, a portrait of him and Mamie. And to top it all off, Gene Mobley was a serious love in Mamie’s life. It seemed like life could not be any better than it was then.
Not long after the new year started, and the Christmas bills started coming in, Emmett got the chance to prove to his mother, once again, that he was growing up. Mamie, whose long hours at work rarely provided her with the time or energy to run errands, reluctantly gave in to Emmett’s insistence that he be allowed to take the streetcar into the city, go to the individual stores, and pay the bills himself. The following day, Mamie gave thirteen year-old Emmett a hundred dollars and she left for work. She returned home to see a stack of bills, each stamped “paid,” and the change left over from the hundred dollars, along with one of Emmett’s now familiar notes that he had taken care of everything. Perhaps it was this side of Emmett, so commonly manifested in his relationship with his mother, that allowed Mamie to sum him up in two sentences decades later. Speaking in 1996, no doubt with a mothers bias, but also after years of interaction with hundreds of children as a teacher in Chicago’s public schools, she said: “I would say that to me, Emmett was very ordinary. But as I look at today’s youth, I realize that Emmett was very extraordinary.”
By the time that Emmett turned fourteen seven months later, he had, in fact, developed a personality that meant something different to each of the many people in his life. In July 1955, he had just finished the eighth grade at McCosh school, and he could be described as fun-loving with his friends, a bit of a prankster, the center of attention, independent, and even mischievous. To his elders, he was very caring, helpful, and well-mannered. His principal, Curtis Melnick, one of several white faculty members at the McCosh school, said Emmett was never in trouble, and academically was “average.” Mamie said that Emmett loved school, but mainly for social reasons, although he was quite gifted at art, science, and spelling.
Emmett also loved baseball, and despite being a little too slow for his teammates, he couldn’t resist the temptation to play, even when he knew better. Mamie recalls once sending him to the store to buy bread, but when passing a sandlot game, he set the bread down and started to play. When he didn’t come home, Mamie went out looking for him. When she found him, “I whipped him all the way home, and he never said a word.” Eva Johnson, a neighbor, witnessed Emmett facing a similar temptation once when a baseball game was going on while he was supposed to be painting the garage. “He’d paint a while and then run over to [the playground] and play ball a while and then run back to painting. He surely wanted to be painting when his Mama showed up from work.”
Like most kids, Emmett thought about his future, and his head was filled with several ideas about what he wanted to do when he grew up. He talked about being a motorcycle cop, or a professional baseball player. He also talked of building his grandmother a new church. As with Alma and Mamie, religion did play an important role in Emmett’s life. After the move to Chicago in 1951, Mamie and Emmett continued their affiliation with the Argo Church of God in Christ, the church Alma had helped to found years earlier. Because she often had to work Sundays, Mamie could not always go to church, but Emmett would attend each week, making the hour-long ride on the 63rd Street bus himself. At some point, around 1955, while Emmett was on his way home from church, he became engaged in conversation, and then in prayer, with the son of the church’s pastor. It was on this occasion, Mamie says, that Emmett became a born-again Christian.
Emmett, however, was still a boy, and sometimes he could be all boy. Both family and friends, reminiscing thirty years later, easily confirm that. Childhood friend Lindsey Hill said that Emmett loved attention but could be a bully if he didn’t get his own way. “He was kind of a tough guy,” he said in 1985. “We played marbles together. If he lost, he took all the marbles. I guess you could call him the neighborhood bully. He was bigger than most of us.” To others, Till was a show-off, but hardly a bully. In several interviews over the years, Wheeler Parker referred to Till as a “natural-born leader,” who loved jokes so much that he would pay a boy to tell them to him.
According to Mamie, Emmett never had a girlfriend, but at age eleven, he had his first date, confidently taking the streetcar to pick up the girl and take her to a movie. Yet overall, around girls, he seemed to manifest a shy, less confident side of himself. “When it came to talking to me, I don’t remember him being as forward as some of the other boys,” recalled Phyllis Hambrick, another childhood friend reminiscing three decades after last seeing him. “He used to come around, not to sit on the porch but more to stand at the end of the sidewalk and talk.” Both Hambrick and Emmett’s mother recalled that Emmett was ridiculed for his stutter, and, adds Hambrick, his weight. “He was a quiet person. I think his stuttering was one of the things that made him shy,” she said.
In late August 1955, Mamie’s uncle, Moses Wright, visited Chicago from his home in Money, Mississippi, to attend the funeral of Robert Jones, his daughter Willie Mae Jones’s father-in-law. While he was staying in Chicago, Wright, a preacher and sharecropper, talked about the country life in Mississippi, fishing, and all the things young boys would like to do in the outdoors. He invited two of his grandsons to go back with him: Wheeler Parker, son of his daughter Hallie Mae, and Curtis Jones, son of Willie Mae. Moses and Wheeler would take the train together, and Curtis would come the following week. Mamie said that Emmett had already been pressuring her to go to Mississippi that summer when he learned some other friends were going. But now that Wheeler was going with Moses, it was all he could think about.
Mamie didn’t hesitate. “The answer was no. Absolutely not. I was against it, my mother was against it. No matter how much people were talking about Mississippi this and Mississippi that, we did not want Emmett to go unless he could go with one of us, as he had done a couple of times before when he was much younger.” Even then, there had been trouble. Mamie remembered that on a previous trip to Mississippi, which had occurred around 1950, he had gotten into a fight with another boy. Besides, Mamie was planning her own vacation—-her first--and she wanted Emmett to be part of it. Her plans were for her, Gene, and Emmett to drive to Detroit, then to Omaha, in her new 1955 Plymouth. Gene was even going to let Emmett drive on the highway.
Still, Emmett wanted to go to Mississippi instead, and his arguments made sense. Mamie discussed it with Alma, and then—unbeknown to the other--they both went to Willie Mae’s house at the same time to talk to Moses about it. They spent the whole evening talking about it and were assured by Moses that everything would be fine. Mamie said she had been reading about renewed racial tensions in the south, probably the recent killings in Mississippi of Rev. George Lee in May, and LaMar Smith earlier in August, both men having been active in black voter registration drives. However, Wright did assure Mamie that Mississippi was changing for the better and that she was overly concerned. But she still needed piece of mind, as she told an audience in 1955: “When you let the boys go to town, please go with them. Take the car keys. If you get six teenagers together, anything can happen.” It was only after Moses assured Mamie and Alma that the boys would never be left alone, that the two women consented. With that, Emmett was going to Mississippi.
In preparing for the trip, it was crucial to school the boys of the fact that Mississippi was not Chicago. They had to know about southern racism, segregation, and the laws that kept Blacks as second-class citizens. Wheeler received his talk from his parents, and Emmett was lectured by Mamie. Emmett, with his independent and fun-loving ways, would need to know that his personality would not be appreciated nor even tolerated by the whites in the Delta. “I began lecturing and schooling Bo seriously on how to conduct himself in the South,” Mamie said in her 1956 memoir. “I emphasized over and over again to him that it was not the same as Argo or Chicago and he had to be extra careful to avoid getting in trouble with white people.” She recalled that moment of schooling in a 1955 speech:
I did warn him that he had a place down there that was a little bit different than Chicago. I told him that if anything happened, even though you think you’re perfectly within your right, for goodness’ sake take low. If necessary, get on your knees and beg apologies. Don’t cross anybody down there because Mississippi is not like Chicago. What you can get away with here, you might not be able to do it there. I said no matter how much it seems that you have the right, just forget your rights while you’re in Mississippi.
With the trip to Mississippi now a reality, Emmett and Mamie made preparations. They went shopping, and Emmett bought new clothes, shoes, and a wallet. While packing at home, he decided he wanted to bring his father’s signet ring, the one Mamie had received when the army sent Louis’s belongings from overseas. He had never really worn it much, except when he was younger. Then, he had to use scotch tape to make it snug. Now, as a husky teen, it fit just right.
On Saturday morning, August 20, Moses Wright, Wheeler Parker, and Emmett Till were to leave Chicago from the Central Street Station, located downtown at 12th Street. Mamie, and a friend, Mary Lee, who was visiting from St. Louis, would bring Emmett, and Wheeler was to come with Moses, and they would all meet there. When the day came, however, Mamie and Emmett were running behind schedule. Since they lived so much closer to the Englewood Station at 63rd and Woodlawn, Mamie decided to board Emmett there before it departed that station at 8:01 A.M. Even then, they were running late. When they finally arrived, Mamie still had to buy Emmett’s ticket. Moses and Wheeler, who had boarded at the previous stop, were getting nervous. “He like to got left,” said Moses a month later. “If he’d been five minutes later he’d have missed it.”
Years later, Mamie spoke of her final moments with Emmett at the train station. With little time to spare, he ran up the steps to board the train, with seemingly little thought about Mamie, still standing there to see him off. “Bo,” she yelled, “you didn’t kiss me good-bye. How do I know I’ll ever see you again?” Slightly embarrassed and frustrated, Emmett turned around and came back. After kissing his mother goodbye, he told her he wouldn’t need his watch, took it off, and handed it to her. However, he decided he still wanted to bring the ring. With that, he was off, just in time to make the train. He turned around for one last wave as he ran down the platform. Mamie watched until he disappeared. When the train left the station, Mamie and Mary Lee left too.
Probably nobody really noticed Emmett Till boarding the train, other than Mamie and Mary Lee, and the now relieved Moses Wright and Wheeler Parker. No one had any idea that after all of the trains that had come north to that station and others like it since World War I, bringing thousands of blacks to a new level of freedom and hope, that this one train, heading south, would play a similar, yet far more dramatic role in that continued process. Mamie Bradley left the station quietly, unnoticed that day, but two weeks later, when she went to the Central Street station to pick up her son, she would be met by a crowd, the media, and Americans from around the country, including leaders from the President of the United States on down, would know her name and that of Emmett Louis Till. But Emmett would be oblivious to it all. He was returning as a mutilated corpse, the victim of a hate crime. His grief stricken mother was there to retrieve what was left of him. His murder was a national story, and it would soon be headlines internationally.
That is getting too far ahead in the story. The train has just left Chicago. The events that permanently alter the lives of so many begin after it arrives at its destination—-“the most Southern place on earth”—-the Mississippi Delta.