Telling the silent stories of murdered women

They are women whose faces remind me of my Black mother, sisters, wife, cousins, aunts. The absence of public outcry over their mostly unsolved murders was reason enough for my journalism students to pursue the story.

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Unforgotten — The Story of Murdered Chicago Women, a project by John Fountain’s journalism class, will be published before year’s end.

Unforgotten — The Story of Murdered Chicago Women, a project by John Fountain’s journalism class, will be published before year’s end.

Standing in front of my class of budding young journalists at Roosevelt University on a cold winter’s January morning at the beginning of the year, I somewhat nervously announced the theme of the semester’s project:

Unforgotten — The Untold Story of Murdered Chicago Women. Women whose faces remind me of my Black mother, sisters, wife, cousins, aunts, daughters, granddaughters …

At least 51 of them, dating back to 2001. Mostly African-American. Mostly strangled, their cases filled with sordid details: partially disrobed, dismembered, thrown in the trash, left in alleys, abandoned buildings and vacant lots, set on fire.

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Mostly, their murders remain unsolved, their cases believed to be the work of at least one serial killer, according to the Murder Accountability Project based in Alexandria, Virginia.

A former daily newspaperman, I am now a professor charged with teaching Convergence, Roosevelt’s capstone undergraduate journalism course. Charged with exposing them to the kind of social justice issues that provide an opportunity to hone their craft and to also “make a difference.”

That’s why I became a journalist 31 years ago. To shine the light on society’s darkest corners. To be a voice for the voiceless. To seek truth. And in so doing, maybe do some good.

But as I unveiled the project, I honestly wasn’t sure how the class of juniors and seniors would react.

Was it too violent? Too gory? Too heavy?

Too Black?

It was none of these in my eyes. As a former crime reporter, murder was the case I often covered, chronicling some of Chicago’s most violent summers and horrific homicides.

I’m a seasoned vet. Battle-hardened. And yet, I remain forever sensitized to the stories of murder victims, to the untold stories of those who dwell beyond the city’s Gold Coast on the Cold Coast, and whose lives and deaths barely make even the daily police blotter.

Their stories matter — stories from the other side of the tracks. The kinds of stories I’ve witnessed editors over my career too often take a pass on. The kinds of stories that reflect badly on hand-wringing city officials and chiefs of police, who often fail to take responsibility for or deal with issues that plague Black and brown neighborhoods.

The case of the murdered Chicago women was glaring. And the absence of public outcry over their mostly unsolved murder cases — let alone the possible link to a serial killer — was reason enough to pursue the story.

My hope was that our project might humanize the women,beyond the “prostitute” and “drug addict” tag under which all of them had been clustered. Raise public awareness …

I shouldn’t have been worried. My class took to the story like bees to honey, researching and trying to locate the next of kin, though most often running into dead ends. They kept at it, seeking to cover stories on related themes, ultimately locating some of the victims’ families.

Then COVID-19 hit, our move to remote classes last spring, and the ensuing year of the pandemic. Still, they persevered.

In the fall, a new Convergence class picked up where the previous class had left off, pursuing our Unforgotten project with no less passion, embracing the subject and seeing the humanity in women murdered and discarded so inhumanely.

Nearly a year after we started, I am happy to report that — through the difficulties of reporting in a pandemic and other myriad associated travails — our work is mostly done. It will be published online before year’s end. (Stay tuned.)

If our work makes some small difference, perhaps brings even one family solace, then our labor will not have been in vain.

And as their professor, honestly, I could not be prouder.

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