When he visited Mississippi, Emmett Till showed a photo of his white classmates in Chicago and pointed to the white girl, joking that that was his “girlfriend.” Sixty-three years later, that girl, Joan Brody, is telling her story publicly for the first time.
CHICAGO — For more than six decades, a mystery has swirled around the Emmett Till case, a mystery involving the photograph of a white girl.
His Mississippi cousins saw the picture and apparently so did his killers.
Till’s murderers “killed him because he boasted of having a white girl and showed them the picture of a white girl in Chicago,” journalist William Bradford Huie told filmmakers for the 1987 “Eyes on the Prize” documentary.
The years have passed, and the long-lost photograph has remained an enigma.
Who was this girl? Did she even exist?
Now, 63 years later, evidence has emerged that the answer is yes.
She was the only white girl in his class
Joan Brody, who lives in a condo in the northern suburbs of Chicago, is making lunch for a film crew as she gets ready to give her first-ever interview.
Her 68-year-old friend, Carole Bass, who is here, too, is the main reason the Clarion Ledger learned of Brody’s existence. When she first heard Brody talk about sitting next to Till in class, she felt chills.
Brody wasn’t aware of the historical significance, Bass said. “She just thought, ‘I sat next to him.'”
In “Eyes on the Prize,” Till’s cousin Curtis Jones mentioned that Till had a “picture of some white kids that he had graduated from (elementary school with) … female and male.”
The documentary’s producer, Henry Hampton, told NPR that Till showed this photo of his classmates to his Mississippi peers, pointing to the white girl and saying she was “his girlfriend. In fact, it was his classmate.”
Upon hearing the audio interview of Hampton, Brody said, “That had to be me.”
She was the only white girl in his class.
She sat next to Emmett Till in class
On her kitchen table, she prepared lox, bagels, cream cheese, cherries, strawberries and Swedish pancakes — all gluten-free.
“I’m only 43,” the 76-year-old joked, “but don’t tell anybody.”
The thing that has puzzled historians was that Till attended the all-black McCosh Grammar School (which now bears his name).
So where did this white girl come from?
The answer lies in the fact Chicago Public Schools kept fewer schools open in summer. One of those was Lewis-Champlain Elementary School.
Normally, this school was all black, but during the summer, a handful of white students went there. Brody and her twin brother, Howie, attended because they needed extra credits to attend South Shore High School, where the family was moving.
In the classroom, she sat next to Till, who was 13. She was 12.
“He had beautiful eyes,” she recalled.
Their first teacher was a white lady, who lasted only a few days.
Their second teacher was a black man, who ran the classroom with a firm hand, whacking students with his ruler.
One day, she and Till were tugging on a belt, and they were both laughing.
She can’t remember what tickled them, but she suspects it was because of their strict teacher.
When the teacher saw them goofing around, he came over and smacked her on the hand with his ruler. She grabbed onto the ruler in defiance, she said.
She has no memory of getting into trouble for doing that — something that surprises her.
When July 25 came, Till celebrated his 14th birthday. She had to wait a month to celebrate her 13th birthday.
Graduation came for the eighth-graders in August. That meant her parents were able to get back the $5 or so they paid in advance for her to attend.
“That was my graduation present. I got to keep the $5,” she said. “My sister got a bike.”
A graduation ceremony took place, and she was forced to wear the dress of a cousin 5 inches taller than her, she said. “I had to tuck it in here and there.”
She joined other students on the stage where photos were apparently taken, she said. “I had no interest in it.”
She never saw Till again.
Emmett Till said he would talk to anybody
In his interview, Hampton explained that when Till showed the picture of the white girl, his peers scoffed.
Till explained that he would talk to anybody, Hampton said, and his peers then challenged him to talk to the white woman in the store in Money, Carolyn Bryant.
After Till bought something and began to leave, “he turned around and said, ‘Bye, baby,’” Hampton said. “He didn’t understand that was a killing offense in Mississippi in (1955), but indeed it was.”
In the 1955 trial, Bryant testified that Till grabbed her by the waist and told her he had had sex with white women before, uttering an obscenity.
Brody shook her head in disbelief.
“He wasn’t a smart-alecky kid,” she said. “He wasn’t a person to smart off to a white woman or any woman.”
Look article claimed Emmett Till talked of sex with white women
The January 1956 Look magazine article obsesses about the claim Till said he’d had sex with white women.
His mother, Mamie, called it preposterous, saying her son would “never brag about the women he had. How could he? He was only 14.”
William Bradford Huie, who wrote the article, claimed that one of Till’s killers, J.W. Milam, flew into a rage after Till told him “about this white girl that he had.”
He quoted Milam as telling Till, “Boy, you ain’t never going to see the sun come up again.”
Upon hearing these words, Brody said that wasn’t the Till she knew.
He never talked about sex, or she would have certainly blushed, she said. “He was a gentleman.”
His horrific photo has been published around the world. Many Americans have never seen it.
Inside the barn, Till’s killers pistol-whipped him so badly that parts of his skull fell out.
His face looked so monstrous when his body arrived in Chicago that his mother, Mamie, insisted his casket be opened so “the world could see what they did to my boy.”
The photograph ran in the Chicago Defender, Jet magazine, many other black publications and in publications around the world, yet many Americans have never seen it because publications have considered it too graphic to print.
Brody was one of them until she recently went online and looked at the picture of Till’s battered body.
It was the first time she had ever seen it.
The photo was so horrific, she turned away, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The men that killed him, she said, “were worse than animals.”
Some believed the photo of the white girl came with Emmett Till’s wallet.
For decades, the photo of the white girl has raised many questions for historians.
Some suggested Till’s cousins were lying about the photo.
Some suggested the picture was really one that Till received with his wallet, perhaps a photograph of a model or actress.
“We didn’t know anything about white girls back in Chicago who might have been Emmett Till’s friends or girlfriends,” said Davis Houck, co-author of “Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press.” “For me, as a historian of the case, this is a real revelation.”
Brody said the story is not about her, “but about him. I want people to know that he did go to an integrated school and that he was a nice kid. He was not the kid he was made out to be.”
‘He could have been president’
There is a photo of a white girl in Brody’s home.
She is wearing a pink jumper with a blue anchor on the front. Her head is covered with dark curly hair, and a smile fills her face.
Next to her is a photo of a blond-haired boy, wearing an almost identical jumper.
She said it is her twin brother. Or was.
“He died when he was only 53.”
He and his family had traveled from their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to Atlanta for his daughter’s soccer tournament. While out jogging, he had a massive heart attack and died.
“I’m sure if he had been home, he would have been recognized and would still be alive,” she said.
She wonders, too, what might have been if Till had lived.
“He had his whole life ahead of him — to be gone just like that,” she said. “And for what reason?”
She wiped away her tears.
“He could have been president,” she said. “He was just a nice kid with a nice smile.”
She choked up.
“He didn’t deserve it,” she said. “Nobody deserves what they did to him.”
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