“You Can’t Tell the Truth”: The Changing Story of Mary Carolyn Clyde

| By Ami Fields-Meyer |

On the night of April 20, 1958, Mary Carolyn Clyde was awake in her cell in the Terrell County Jail when she saw Dawson Police Officers Weyman B. Cherry and Randolph E. McDonald remove James Brazier from his cell in the jail’s women’s quarters. The officers brought Brazier – blindfolded and pleading for his life – downstairs, first to Sheriff Zachary T. Mathews’ office and then to the side of the prison. Once they had left the building, Clyde couldn’t see Brazier, but she recognized his voice.[1]

Clyde’s view of Brazier’s cell had been clear on the night he was beaten to death. Over the course of almost five years, she described that gruesome scene to the people she knew she could trust: Amos Holmes, the NAACP field secretary in Georgia; Nettie Cate, a cook at the Terrell County Jail and neighbor of James Brazier; and Donald Hollowell, the attorney for James Brazier’s widow, Hattie Bell Brazier. When Clyde talked to the FBI, however, she altered her story.[2]

As Hattie Brazier’s civil lawsuit against Dawson and Terrell County law enforcement officers moved forward in late 1962, Hollowell came to believe reports that the officers had tried to curry favor with Clyde, paying her $2 to keep quiet,[3] and had intimidated her. But as he approached his deposition with Clyde, he had confidence in the consistency of her story.[4] He knew the risk that came with deposing her while the case’s defendants and their lawyers watched nearby. But he needed her testimony.[5] On the day of her deposition, however, Clyde claimed to know almost nothing.

Mary Carolyn Clyde hadn’t intended to be part of this battle. She had been jailed in October 1957 on a charge of killing her husband and was later convicted of manslaughter.[6] Clyde served the beginning of her sentence in the Terrell County Jail, then continued there long after inmates convicted of such charges are typically sent to a Georgia state penitentiary. While the records reviewed by the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory provide no explanation for why Clyde was retained in the county jail, information gathered by NAACP field secretary Amos Holmes and given to Donald Hollowell offered one possible explanation: During her time in the county jail, they both concluded, inmate Eugene Magwood, who was Sheriff Z.T. Mathews’ appointed trusty, had keys to the cells of Clyde and other black female inmates and was making sexual advances on Clyde.[7]

Less than a year into Clyde’s sentence, Cherry and McDonald brought Brazier into the Terrell County Jail. That night, Clyde witnessed the events surrounding the beating that would lead to Brazier’s death and thrust her into a critical role as the Brazier family sought justice.

When FBI agents arrived in Dawson and interviewed Clyde in Sheriff Mathews’ office on June 19 and August 1, 1958, Magwood stood on the porch just outside.[8] “They were right in that window,” Clyde remembered in a 2013 interview. “They were sitting ‘round listening. They wouldn’t let me talk with them.”[9]

Clyde later sent a letter to Nettie Cate, a cook in the Terrell County Jail, recounting the interview with the FBI and admitting that she had been sparing in delivering the truth to visiting agents.[10] Dawson police officers, she wrote, had threatened her before the FBI visit.[11]

In July 1958, Clyde sat down with Reverend Amos O. Holmes, a field director for the NAACP. Clyde was “tired of being abused by Gene, who had come in and out of her cell as he wished,” and spoke candidly with Holmes, who published a summary of her testimony in an affidavit later that month. This detailed account implicated Cherry and McDonald and pointed to Mathews as a willful accomplice.[12] Clyde was soon transferred from Terrell County to a prison in Milledgeville, Georgia.[13]

In November 1962, as Donald Hollowell was gathering information for Hattie Brazier’s civil lawsuit, Clyde spoke with him at her father’s home in Bronwood, near Dawson.[14] The answers she offered Hollowell aligned with those she had given Holmes and Cate; they exposed Magwood’s sexual exploitation of female inmates as a regular practice and not a one-time occurrence. Clyde’s account offered the potential to bring about lasting legal consequences.[15]

But Hollowell was well acquainted with the South’s longstanding system of black repression. Though Southern blacks “talked incessantly about the unfairness of the law,” as historian Leon Litwack wrote, they dared not complain to whites.[16] White authorities sought to scare blacks into submission. Hollowell wouldn’t be surprised if – despite Clyde’s openness with him – she caved to intimidation when it mattered most.

Only three months after Clyde had sat in her father’s Bronwood home and provided Hollowell a detailed account of her life and the circumstances surrounding Brazier’s death, Hollowell escorted Clyde into a room at the federal courthouse in Americus, Georgia, to give a formal deposition. The trial of Hattie Brazier’s civil suit was only a few short weeks away.[17] Minutes into his line of questioning, Hollowell sensed that he was not going to get the story from Clyde that he had previously heard and that his case so relied on.[18]

After Clyde recounted the scene that followed Brazier’s arrival at his cell “shortly before sundown” that fateful evening, Hollowell asked her a pointed question.

“Did you see who brought him in?”

Visibly nervous, Clyde equivocated. “I don’t know sir whether I did or not,” she said.

Hollowell pressed Clyde again. She relented: “I know one of them brought him in but I don’t know who the other one was.”

“Well, who was the one?”

“I know Mr. Cherry come in there with him.” She pointed to Cherry.[19]

Then, in an instant, her once-vivid memories after sundown that night changed. Recognizing the presence of her local law enforcement officials just feet away, Clyde no longer spoke in a way that might implicate them in the murder of James Brazier. “After they brought him in there,” she continued, “I didn’t see him ‘til that next morning.”[20]

Suddenly, a key eyewitness knew nothing.

Clyde claimed that her view of the inmates in the other cells had been obscured that night. She denied that she had previously told Hollowell that the officers had brought Brazier to the side of the prison; that she had heard Brazier’s voice; that she knew of Gene Magwood’s other involuntary mistresses. She said that Brazier’s appearance had not changed during the night, and that the next day, he “looked like he did to me when I first seen him.” As Hollowell reeled off statement after verbatim statement from his previous interview with her,[21] his witness claimed not to remember saying any of them.[22]

Three weeks later, flanked by a jury, a judge, and facing Cherry, McDonald, and Mathews during the trial of Hattie Brazier’s lawsuit, Clyde remained a closed book. Flustered, Hollowell asked the judge to declare her a hostile witness[23], but that legal maneuver could not change the reality of what had unfolded: Clyde had altered her story out of fear, and Hattie Bell Brazier’s case began to vanish.[24]

A half a century later, Clyde lives on a dirt road in a small and modest trailer home with her extended family. [25] Standing across from the wheelchair-bound woman, Emory professor Hank Klibanoff asked about the way she changed her story in 1963. He asked whether that era had been “a hard time to tell the truth.”

“Sure was,” Clyde answered. “You can’t tell the truth. ‘Cause if you told the truth, someone was going to go get you.”

When Klibanoff mentioned that Hattie Brazier had wanted Clyde to tell the truth, Clyde’s tone grew at once morose and matter-of-fact. Her mind clearly went back to the courtroom where she sat only feet from the two police officers and the sheriff. In nine words, Clyde defended her changing story: “I couldn’t tell the truth when they were there.”[26]

Edited by Hank Klibanoff

[1] Interview Report with Amos O. Holmes, FBI, July 29, 2014, James Brazier, Bureau File 44-13064 (hereafter cited as FBI Files on James Brazier).
[2] Interview Report with Mary Carolyn Clyde, FBI Files on James Brazier, August 2, 1958.
[3] Handwritten notes re: Mary Carolyn Clyde, Donald L. Hollowell Collection, Auburn Avenue Research Library (hereafter cited as Hollowell papers).
[4] Interview Report with Amos O. Holmes, FBI Files on James Brazier.
[5] Now that Marvin Goshay and Irene Gladden, two other eyewitnesses from the jail, had died, Clyde, more than anyone, held the key to winning Hattie Bell Brazier’s lawsuit.
[6] Though she given a sentence of five to ten years, she served less that three.
[7] Clyde was likely kept in Dawson, and not transferred to a state penitentiary, for that purpose.
Handwritten notes re: Eugene Magwood, Donald L. Hollowell Collection, Auburn Avenue Research Library (hereafter cited as Hollowell papers).
[8] Interview Report with Mary Carolyn Clyde, FBI Files on James Brazier.
[9] Mary Carolyn Clyde, Interview by Brett Gadsden, Hank Klibanoff and Mary Claire Kelly. Personal Interview. Dawson, Georgia, August 17, 2013.
[10] Urgent Teletype from SAC Atlanta to Director of the FBI, FBI Files on James Brazier, May 2, 1958.
[11] Interview Report with Amos O. Holmes, FBI.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Clyde remained an inmate there for approximately one year and eight months, when she was released on parole.
Deposition of Mary Carolyn Clyde, Hattie Brazier v. W. B. Cherry, Randolph McDonald, Zachary T. Matthews [sic], et al., C.A. 475, M.D. Ga., The National Archives at Atlanta, January 19, 1963.
[14] There is no record from this interview. We learn about it in the transcript of Hollowell’s deposition of Clyde. All quotations or paraphrased lines from this November 1962 interview are taken from the transcript of the deposition, in which Hollowell reads back Clyde’s answers word for word.
Testimony of Mary Carolyn Clyde, Hattie Brazier v. W. B. Cherry, Randolph McDonald, Zachary T. Matthews [sic], et al., C.A. 475, M.D. Ga. (hereafter cited as Brazer v. Cherry), February 8, 1963, The National Archives at Atlanta, 592-612.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, (New York: Knopf, 1998), 248.
[17] Testimony of Mary Carolyn Clyde, Brazier v. Cherry, 592-612.
[18] Deposition of Mary Carolyn Clyde.
[19] Hollowell then pressed further, asking whether Clyde knew “Mr. Z. T. Mathews,” referring to the Terrell County Sheriff. She said she did, and pointed him out, as well. Testimony of Mary Carolyn Clyde, Brazier v. Cherry, 592.
[20] The testimony reads “‘owning.”
[21] These were statements that Clyde had given in November 1962.
Testimony of Mary Carolyn Clyde, Brazier v. Cherry, 592-612.
[22] Deposition of Mary Carolyn Clyde.
[23] In law, when an attorney who has called a witness to the stand discovers that the witness’s testimony could actually hurt his or her client’s case or that it contradicts past testimony, the attorney can request that the witness be considered “hostile” by the court. He can then “lead the witness” in his questioning.
[24] While Clyde may have felt the imbalance and partiality of the legal system, it was rational for her to be silent about what she knew. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were punished far more heavily for crimes than were whites. According to Jennifer Ritterhouse, “Many more black men spent years in prison for stealing a farm animal than white men did for murdering blacks.” Jennifer Lynn Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2006).
[25] Hank Klibanoff, Interview by Amiel Fields-Meyer, Personal Interview, November 2013.
[26] Mary Carolyn Clyde, Interview by Brett Gadsden, Hank Klibanoff and Mary Claire Kelly. Personal Interview. Dawson, Georgia, August 17, 2013.