The shed on the Sheridan Plantation, where Emmett Till was brutalized and killed
By Susan Klopfer, author
JUST SEVERAL MONTHS after the violent murder of Rev. George Washington Lee, a popular Belzoni minister and voting rights advocate, a Boy Scout campfire was burning down to its last embers over in Tallahatchie County on the outskirts of Charleston. It was August 28, 1955, in the early morning hours when Robert Keglar and his scouts were seated around the fire as they heard a story they would never forget.
Finding his way into their campsite in the early morning hours, a “very shaken man” told Keglar and his campers of hearing screams of torture several hours earlier. The man said the sounds came from a machine shed on the Sheridan plantation outside of Drew, about 40 miles southwest of where they were camped.
The visitor reported seeing “several men” taking a body from the barn and hauling it off, afterwards. More than two men were in the lynching party he told Keglar and others as the fire smoldered and died. The tired and bewildered campers finally bedded down. When they awoke for breakfast, the visitor was gone.
SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT on that same date, the parents of a white seventeen-year-old Ruleville girl let early-morning visitors stay in their home for the night. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the latter her mother’s relative by marriage, were loud and nervous. The girl later learned that her parent’s visitors killed Emmett Till.
* * * * *
As a newcomer to the Mississippi delta, living with my husband on the grounds of the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, from 2001 to 2003, I heard the scouting story from Robert Keglar, himself. He’d been introduced to me by his son-in-law, a nurse at the prison who’d heard from my husband that I was writing delta stories. When word got around about my writing project, I found it almost too easy to gather stories like these; everyone had something to tell me.
Walter Scurlock, the owner of a small Drew restaurant, called me on the phone one morning and said a woman from town, someone he barely knew, had come into his restaurant crying. Walter knew what I’d been working on, and kept his eyes open for any stories that might help with my project.
Scurlock said this woman had been listening to the news about Emmett Till and the cold case investigation being reopened by the FBI. She surprised him by looking him square in the eyes and saying she was sorry.
“I was confused, but she kept talking and crying,” he told me. But my delta “spy” listened, and soon his customer said “something about her parents knowing the killers of Emmett Till”. Scurlock didn’t have the time to listen to her story, since he was busy preparing lunch.
“So I asked her for her telephone number and I told her I know someone she should talk to. I gave her your phone number. Was that okay?” he said.
Ten minutes later the crying lady and I were talking over coffee in her living room. She told me her story:
Visitors had come to their Ruleville home in the early morning of Aug. 28 in 1955; the day Emmett Till was murdered. “My parents didn’t tell me what was going on at the time. J.W. had a full brother, Bud, and I am very sure he was with them, too. I was in bed, but I could hear their voices.”
She stopped and asked, “Please don’t use my name.” I agreed.
When she awoke at sunrise, all three men had vanished. Her father told her about the visit and said that Milam and Bryant confessed to him what they had done to the young Chicago visitor, stating Till’s name.
“They knew the law was looking for them. They also said that Carolyn Bryant was with them when they killed Emmett Till. I don’t know when Bud joined them. I think they caught up with him later. He was a nicer person than his brother and I don’t think he would have killed someone — I hope not,” she told me.
She swore that she never knew what happened to the men after they left her home.
“I think they knew the law was going to catch up with them. But I also think they felt safe, since most of the police officers were covering for them, anyway. I don’t know if they turned themselves in, let themselves be found, or if they were picked up by the sheriff and charged. “I still can’t believe they put our family in such danger; there was so much turmoil after Emmett Till was killed. People in Drew —black and white — were threatening to kill each other’s entire families. Some were threatening to kill as many as ten members of another person’s family as payback. It got very bad for a long time in our town.
“I know that my parents would have never covered for them. The men came to our house and sat there all night. Later, my parents told me what was going on. But I would never want anyone to think that our family helped them out.
“Most white people in Drew and Ruleville felt the same way. After the trial, the only support Milam and Bryant got came from the Klan, because they were members. Most people didn’t want to have anything to do with them; they had killed a 14-year-old child, after all. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but they did kill him,” she finished.
As I started to leave her home, the older Drew woman told me she knew very little about Emmett Till and asked if I could loan her a book. Drew is so small there is no library and of course no book store, so I went out to my car and brought her a copy of Christopher Metress’s book, The Lynching of Emmett Till. She quickly took it and thanked me.
Several weeks later, I stopped by her home and asked if she’d finished reading the book. At first a little embarrassed, she said she had read it, found it fascinating, and loaned it to a friend. The book was apparently making the rounds in Drew, making me feel like I had helped to change their town forever.
I never again asked for the return of the book, and she never offered to give it back. Somehow I knew it was being read over and over and over. White Drew was finally learning the story of Emmett Till.
Black Drew already knew the Emmett Till story. But I doubted that many African Americans living there knew much about the secretive Sovereignty Commission and white Citizens Councils, since so very few people — black or white — could help me with this history.
The last week we were living at Parchman, I drove over to Drew to take a copy of my book, Where Rebels Roost, written about the region’s civil rights history, to an older woman who owned a small sewing shop downtown. I had been updating her all along on my progress and asking her questions, as well, since she had taken an early interest in seeing words put to print. I wanted to make sure I’d given Kate a copy before leaving town.
She set the 700-page book under her front counter and I wondered if she would someday take a look. When I came by the next day to pick up some sewing, there were two older black women sitting at the front of her store. One woman was sitting in a rocking chair and rocking back and forth slowly as she read aloud to the others.
I could see her listening and working at the sewing machine. She motioned me over and said, “I’m letting my friends read the book. They can’t take it home. They have to read it here.”
Closing my eyes, I see this woman’s kind face, smiling as she kept sewing and listening to the book reading session going on in her store. I had a feeling there would quite a few more readings for some time to come.
Susan Klopfer is a graduate of Hanover College and holds a master’s degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. She has worked as an acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall and has won journalism awards from the Missouri Press Associations. Her book Abort! Retry! Fail! was named an alternate selection for the Book of the Month Club. She and her husband, Fred, lived on the grounds of Parchman Penitentiary when she completed the initial research for Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited; The Emmett Till Book; and Who Killed Emmett Till.Fred was chief psychologist for the state’s public prisons. They now reside in Cuenca, Ecuador where they enjoy traveling throughout South America. Her fiction book, The Plan, is set for September publications.
The Plan is a MURDER MYSTERY, HISTORICAL FICTION THRILLER that opens in New York City, but quickly moves to the Deep South and then Ecuador. The bond between Clinton and Joe, two gay, black lawyers (one of them, married) is broken when Joe is reportedly found hanged. A suicide seems impossible to Clint, and Joe’s widow is acting cagey. Clinton Moore thinks Joe was murdered, and that his and Joe’s shared obsession– investigating and fact gathering about the cover-up of various murders of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,and of John F. Kennedy– is the reason for Joe’s death. Clinton feels he is next on the list, and that solving Joe’s murder is his only chance of survival. When he discovers that Joe’s wife has been spirited away to South America, he sends his trusted legal assistant, Mollie Johnson, to Cuenca, Ecuador to check it out. Filled with information to titillate the most sophisticated conspiracy theorist, Susan Klopfer‘s first foray into thriller fiction is thought-provoking fodder and a fun read!
Learn more about The Plan at http://ebooksfromsusan.com/.
Susan’s print and ebooks are available at Amazon.com, Lulu.com and other popular online bookstores.