It was after 14-year-old Emmett Till disappeared in Mississippi and his mother’s dread grew, after his tortured body was found in a lake, weighted down with a 75-pound cotton-gin fan, and after his 700-mile journey home to Chicago in a wooden box. That’s when news reporter Mattie Smith Colin waited with Mamie Till Mobley at the old Illinois Central station on what must have been the longest day of her life.
“Oh God, oh God. My only boy.”
With those words, Mrs. Colin captured Mrs. Mobley’s anguish in a story she wrote for the Chicago Defender.
She described how the mother of the African-American teenager who would become an iconic figure in the civil rights movement dropped to her knees, praying, while her son’s remains were unloaded from the train after his 1955 murder by racists in Money, Miss., for supposedly having whistled at a white woman.
“Lord, you gave your only son to remedy a condition,” Mrs. Mobley cried, “but who knows but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching!”
Mrs. Mobley told Mrs. Colin how she recognized her son, who’d been visiting relatives in the South when he was killed.
“I stood a long time looking at the body. I recognized Emmett’s hairline, his hair, the general shape of his nose and his teeth. Especially his teeth because I used to tell him daily to take care of his teeth, because he had the most beautiful set I have ever seen … However, some of his teeth from the front and right side were missing when the body arrived here. He had a perfect set when he left.”
Later, Mrs. Mobley, vowing to “let the world see what I’ve seen,” decided on a glass-topped casket for her son’s wake at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ at 40th and State. The ensuing shock and revulsion helped stoke the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Colin never forgot the tragedy of that day, said Eugene F. Scott, former publisher of the Defender. “She wasn’t looking at it like a reporter,” Scott said. “She was looking at it like a mother.”
Mrs. Colin, 98, of Chicago, died Dec. 6 after a short illness.
Starting around 1950, she worked for the Defender for more than half a century. She covered news and politics and served as food and fashion editor. Her reporting was second to none, Scott said.
The Defender’s owner-publisher John H. Sengstacke “had the utmost confidence in Mattie,” he said.
Sengstacke entrusted Mrs. Colin with shepherding the many VIPs who attended the Defender’s yearly Bud Billiken Day parade, including former President Harry Truman, who was there in 1956. Later, she served as grand marshal.
Young Mattie grew up in Bronzeville near 37th and Calumet. Her mother, also named Mattie, died while giving birth to her, and she was raised by her father Frank, a jitney owner and driver, and his relatives, according to Anne L. Fredd, a cousin by marriage. She attended Raymond grade school and Fenger High School and studied journalism at Loyola and Northwestern universities.
In 1952, she married her bridge partner Robert N. Colin, a Chicago cop who later worked in the Cook County assessor’s office. After he retired, he considered it his job to drive Mrs. Colin to her many work and social engagements, Fredd said. He died in 1992.
Mrs. Colin segued to part-time status at the Defender while working as a writer for the Chicago Park District and as a staff assistant for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. In 1965, she volunteered to do publicity in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson, Fredd said.
“What an amazing narrative that was, of her evolution covering Emmett Till and JFK and the aftershock of Kennedy’s assassination,” said Ethan Michaeli, her former copy editor at the Defender and author of the 2016 book “The Defender,” a history of the newspaper. “She was a political reporter at a time when it was a great time to be a political reporter, maybe the greatest time ever.”
Mrs. Colin was always impeccably attired and tastefully accessorized, her nails, hair and make-up all “done.” She loved chocolate ice cream and a nightly martini, her friend Esther Barnett said. And she enjoyed living at 1 W. Superior because it was walking distance from Marshall Field’s, Saks, Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin, Fredd said.
Her son Robert N. Colin Jr. died before her. A celebration of Mrs. Colin’s life is planned Saturday in Chicago. For information, call Evelyn Neri at (312) 641-7144.