By: Davis Houck
On May 26, 1955, 11-year-old Dianne Kearney was fishing along the banks of the Tallahatchie River, not far from her family’s Pleasantview Plantation here in Money.
Fishing with young Dianne was her black “nurse,” Jimmie Abrams, and her twin 9-year-old sisters. When Jimmie accidentally fell in the river following a fainting spell, young Dianne took control: she ordered the twins to run and get help; and, she entered the river, maneuvered Ms. Abrams’ body toward the bank and helped bring her ashore. Both Abrams and Dianne quickly recovered from the near-drowning incident.
For saving Jimmie Abrams’ life, Dianne was recognized in 1955 by the American Red Cross and awarded the Certificate of Merit Award, the organization’s highest honor for risking one’s life to save another. The following year, in 1956, the Hero Fund awarded Dianne a Carnegie Medal for her heroism.
Dianne Kearney entered public discourse about the Emmett Till case in early September as both the Greenwood Commonwealth and the Greenwood Morning Star situated her heroism in the context of interracial goodwill. That is, the act of saving her black nurse’s life functioned as a representative anecdote for how blacks and whites in the Mississippi Delta actually got along. Whereas Roy Wilkins and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) claimed that whites fostered a climate conducive to the lynching of a black child, Virgil Adams of the Morning Star claimed that Dianne Kearny’s actions were far more indicative of black-white relations. Outsiders like Wilkins and the NAACP, claimed Adams, only wanted to stir up antagonisms between local blacks and whites, when in fact the two cared deeply for one another. That the rescue happened very close to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market added an additional layer of pathos.
Adams wasn’t the only one to make special mention of Dianne Kearney and Jimmie Abrams. Even the black press as far north as Chicago and New York wrote about the young girl’s heroic actions. No doubt many also noted the fact that the Kearney case and the Till case were very dissimilar: an 11-year-old girl saving a beloved family nurse from drowning was vastly different from a 14-year-old Chicago boy whistling at a 21-year-old married white woman. In other words, one didn’t have to choose sides; both could be true: white Mississippians could lynch a black boy just as they might heroically rescue an intimate family friend/employee, who happened to be black.