His mother, Mamie, recalled that her baby boy’s “neck, right knee, and left wrist had been constricted by the umbilical cord,” and that he could have chocked to death. “His wrist was swollen and his knee was swollen even more. It was as big as an apple.”
The doctors blamed the breeched birth on Mamie, who also blamed herself. She was a teenager, newly married to a tall, dark, “dashing, good-looking” man named Louis Till, who worked at the Corn Products Refining Company in Argo, Ill.
The young married couple had just gotten a new apartment and Mamie wanted the place looking nice for when her baby came to it for the first time. She was proud of the apartment and a perfectionist.
“I was hanging curtains and I was cleaning cobwebs high up on the windows,” she recalled. “And somebody came by and saw me and told me I shouldn’t reach overhead like that.”
So, Mamie wrote, it was her fault that her baby — born with near-white skin and blue eyes — was clinging to life just after coming out of the womb, “all because I wanted a nice, clean place for the baby to live and play. Now, in the delivery room, I was being punished for it, but I didn’t want my baby to have to suffer for my mistake.”
Mamie named her baby after her favorite uncle, Emmett, and her husband, Louis, who along with being a factory worker was an amateur boxer who beat Mamie, once chocking her until she passed out.
Louis was not around much, not even during his son’s birth. So Mamie, who described herself as sheltered and a bit naive (Louis was the only man she had ever been with when they got married) took parenting help where she could get it.
One day, a striking, glamorous “woman from the neighborhood,” an acquaintance of Mamie’s, “wanted to come by and bring her baby to visit my baby.”
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Soon after the woman got inside, Mamie recalled, Emmett — whose skin had by now browned, his eyes having changed from blue to hazel, his mother having christened him with the nickname, BoBo — started to cry.
“I had noticed that whenever I finished feeding my baby, he seemed to start crying,” Mamie wrote. The woman asked Mamie if she could feed Emmett. Mamie, after insisting that the woman wash her breasts first, reluctantly agreed.
Soon after the woman nursed Emmett, he was asleep. Taking the woman’s advice, Mamie took her baby to the local health center, where he was put on a diet of “formula, yellow cornmeal, and Carnation milk with Karo syrup.
“Now, Emmett was just a baby,” Mamie wrote. “I didn’t think he even should have been eating solid food yet. But he ate a whole bowl. That woman had been like an angel to me and Emmett.”
Later, however, Mamie would learn that the woman “had quite a reputation around Argo” and it was not for “helping new mothers, but for helping their husbands. Not only had she suckled my baby, but I found out she also had serviced my man.”
That episode should provide some context for Mamie’s seemingly bitter recollection about the telegram she received on July 13, 1945, several years after Louis left home to fight in World War II and just a few weeks before Emmett turned four years old.
“Louis Till was dead, killed in Italy,” Mamie wrote. “There wasn’t much of an explanation. In fact, the telegram raised more questions than it answered. Like the words ‘willful misconduct.’ It was all too much. I collapsed when I read the news.”
Sometime after the news, Mamie recalled, she would think on the phrase ‘willful misconduct.’
“What a fitting epitaph, it seemed,” considering the man she had known. The matter of Louis Till would end there, for Mamie and for the country, had it not been for “a special gift, a remembrance.”
After the army returned some of her late husband’s belongings, Mamie discovered “a plain silver ring” that Louis had bought in Casablanca and had engraved “with his initials, LT, and the date MAY 25 1943.”
She would have to find “just the right moment” to share it with Emmett. In the meantime, the ring allowed her to realize a truth about Louis that he may not have even known, at least consciously, himself.
“I realized that Emmett was the one thing that gave meaning to Louis’s life,” she said. “He hadn’t been a good husband, hadn’t been a good father, and seemed to do his best to show the world that he wasn’t a good person. But Emmett was his singular achievement, his one accomplishment, and in the end, perhaps his only reason for being.
— Michael Romain