Thirty-seven-year-old Michael Rosa of tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi lost a research paper he wrote as an undergraduate student. "I wish I had been a more serious student, then. I wish I had realized what I'd written and the importance," he said.
Rosa remembers turning in his paper and then forgetting about it until this fall, 15 years later, when taking a graduate political science class.
Again, he has been asked to write a research paper and it is due in two weeks.
Both assignments? Write about a significant Mississippi black history incident.
If only Rosa could figure out how to put his hands on the paper he wrote in 1994 on Emmett Till, a paper that included a personal interview with one of Till's murderers, Roy Bryant, the assignment would have more personal meaning today, he said.
"Back then, we didn't have computers, printers and copy machines. But I wish I could get the original paper back. That would certainly help with this assignment," he said.
Rosa has a fascinating story to tell, even if he cannot recover the most important student paper he has ever written -- probably the most historically significant paper he will ever write.
Rosa was studying black history at Valley State University, the small, historically black college near his hometown in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1994 when a black history professor issued the first assignment that is close to the project he is currently trying to finish.
The first time around, Rosa knew from the start he wanted to write about Till, a 14-year-old Chicago schoolboy who was murdered while visiting relatives in the Delta in 1955. The event is said to have sparked the modern civil rights movement and it is a piece of history that has picked up interest in the past few years as the FBI investigated this civil rights cold case.
This fall, Till's original casket was moved to the Smithsonian museum for protection and eventual display, after the Chicago cemetery where his body is buried was subjected to grave robberies. Till's grave was unharmed but his original casket was found abandoned in an old shed.
Further, the race for historical research is on in Mississippi as the state prepares to move into the future, with a new pledge that its school children learn the truth about their state's civil rights past. The classroom program is the outgrowth of a law passed in 2006 by the Legislature and statewide implementation is planned for the 2010-2011 school year.
Rosa knew about Till because the murder was so shocking it made international news in 1955, just one year after U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education that declared the end to segregated schools. Till's murder took place near Rosa's home town.
Till, visiting relatives in the Delta, allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who with her husband ran a small grocery story in Money, a nearby cotton hamlet even smaller than Itta Bena.
Rosa was working on his first school assignment in 1994 when his cousin, Pete Walker, asked him about his paper. As it turned out, Rosa's grandfather, "probably a Klansman," had bonded out Till's murderers from jail in nearby Greenwood.
"My grandfather, Landy Walker, lived in the same small town of Phillips near Money. It was a small community and everyone helped each other, so that's probably why my grandfather did this," Rosa said.
The cousin told Rosa he could help him with his research paper by providing a first-hand opportunity to meet Roy Bryant, who with J.W. Milam killed the young visitor. They were never convicted but later confessed their guilt to a national magazine reporter.
The two traveled to Ruleville, about 30 miles northwest of Itta Bena, where Rosa remembers meeting Bryant at his watermelon stand on the corner of the highway heading west to Cleveland.
"He was cordial when I told him about my paper. Then he started talking in great detail. He was giving his personal view about what happened that night -- he really didn't mention J.W. Milam (Till's second killer) or anyone else, but I could tell he hadn't changed one bit since that night.
"He used the N word over and over -- maybe 100 times -- when he was telling me about what happened. He said at first, after his wife told him what Till had done -- that he was just going to whoop the boy. But he said Emmett made some remarks that pushed him overboard. So they killed him."
Bryant told Rosa he was very drunk that night and said they killed Till and tied a gin fan around his neck while they were still in Drew. "It sounded like Till was either dead or unconscious when they did that to him."
Talking to Bryant was "...like talking to a stone cold killer. He showed absolutely no remorse. It was like he was able to vividly recall what happened that night."
Rosa remembers that Bryant said his wife, Carolyn, was with the men. "He said he came home to the store and she said Till [using a derogatory term] had 'come on to her.' Bryant said she went with him and Milam to the uncle's house [Rev. Moses Wright] to kidnap Till and that she identified him, that she pointed him out."
Rosa remembers Bryant explaining they killed Emmett Till "because he didn't understand where the hell he was -- that he was in the South," and "because he wasn't scared at all, like he should have been."
Bryant was a bitter man who was angry at the white community for refusing to do business at his watermelon stand, Rosa said. "Bryant claimed that Milam 'got all the money' from the magazine interview. He died two weeks after we talked."
A racist grandfather can easily poison his family's beliefs for generations to come. But the circle was broken for Rosa, he says, because his grandmother made the difference. Rosa's mother worked long hours and his maternal grandmother, "a kind soul," took care of him.
The family was poor and lived at the edge of the black side of town where Rosa "saw racism while I was growing up on a daily basis."
Other white kids went to the town's all-white private academy. But Rosa lived 100 feet from the public school and decided to go there -- from elementary through high school.
"Some of the white families got together and offered to pay for my tuition to the white school. They didn't want to see me go to the public school with black kids. I was the only white student."
A neighbor woman once offered to pay for his schooling through college, if he would change to the private academy. "I told her 'no' and she said, '...well, at least don't associate with any of them.'"
Rosa knew, as a young child, he did not want to "be this way."
Recently, as a mentor at the public school, Rosa was asked by the administrator if he had any ideas for how to reach out to white children and get them to come to the public school.
"It's tough. When I was growing up, one side of town was all white. Now there are only three white families left. Everyone else has moved out into the country and they home school or send their kids to the Pillow Academy over in Greenwood."
Meanwhile, Rosa said he plans to sit quietly and try to think back and remember as much as he can about the interview he had with Roy Bryant so many years ago.
"I really do remember most of what he said, very vividly. It is important history and I want to be able to pass it on to others."Research paper online