By: Davis Houck
Emmett Till’s great uncle on his mother’s side of the family, Crosby Smith, performed several very important roles in the hours and days following the kidnapping of August 28.
Smith, who worked as a janitor and handyman in Sumner, was the brother of Mamie Till’s mother, Alma Smith Spearman; he was also the sister of Moses Wright’s wife, Elizabeth Smith Wright. By all accounts the Smiths and the Wrights were close family relatives and visited each other frequently.
In the early morning hours after the kidnapping on Sunday, August 28, Moses Wright drove his distraught and very scared wife to Crosby Smith’s home on the south side of Sumner, close to Highway 49; Elizabeth Wright would never return to Money, not even to retrieve her belongings. Later that same day, Smith accompanied Moses Wright to Greenwood in order to inform the County Sheriff, George Smith, about the kidnapping of their great nephew. Their account of the abduction led Smith and his deputy, John Ed Cothran, to conclude that Roy Bryant and his half-brother John (J.W.) Milam were likely involved. Bryant was arrested later on August 28; Milam was arrested the following day. Both men were initially held on separate floors of the Leflore County Jail at the courthouse in Greenwood.
Once Emmett Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River on Wednesday, August 31, Crosby Smith proved instrumental in getting the badly mutilated corpse back to Chicago. Just minutes before Emmett’s body was to be buried in a shallow grave at the East Money Church of God in Christ cemetery, Smith and a police officer arrived with orders from Chicago to call off the burial; the body would instead be shipped back home by rail. At one point the ever-loyal Smith even promised Mamie Till that he would bring the body home, even if he had to pack his pick-up truck in ice and drive the body there himself. Smith boarded a train to Chicago to accompany Emmett Till’s body on the evening of September 1; accompanying him was his sister Elizabeth Wright, who wanted out of Mississippi forever.
Nearly 20 years removed from the awful events of August 1955, Crosby Smith gave one of only two published interviews to David A. Shostak, which was published in the Negro History Bulletin. The interview is important for several reasons, not the least of which is the controversial claim by Smith that it was none other than Moses’ son, Maurice Wright, who informed Roy Bryant of what had transpired between Till and Carolyn Bryant at the store in Money on August 24, thus triggering the events leading to Till’s abduction and murder.
Smith’s burial place is just one very important site along the Till Trail in Sumner. Not only did Milam and Bryant’s team of attorneys work in the small community, but the courthouse would be ground-zero of an international media storm that threatened to overwhelm the community during the September 1955 trial.