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Unforgotten: The untold story of murdered Chicago women

From the beginning, I understood that my students and I were embarking on an ambitious journey to try and tell the 51 women’s stories, most of their cases cold. Then the pandemic hit. We persevered.

Nancie Walker, who was slain in Chicago in 2003.

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning ...”

–Isaiah 61:3

Ashes. She disappeared like ashes upon a menacing swirling wind. Her name was Nancie Carolyn Walker. It was on an unseasonably warm overcast day in January, 18 years ago, that she vanished — at least for seven weeks, until they found her.

These are among the words that I and my journalism students at Roosevelt University wrote about the 51 mostly Black women murdered in Chicago over 18 years and identified by the Murder Accountability Project as having perished at the hands of at least one serial killer.

Our words seek to convey some sense of the incalculable loss, yearning for justice and also the inerasable recollections held by family and other loved ones of these women, most often strangled and severed and sometimes set on fire. Then discarded in assorted trash bins, vacant lots, parks, abandoned houses or on the side of the road.

I don’t remember how I happened upon the story. A few local media outlets had sparingly done stories about the possible existence of a serial killer, containing sordid details and (we would later learn) mislabeling the 51 women as “prostitutes” and “drug addicts.” Still, I uncovered little about their humanity, virtually nothing about their lives and stories outside of the fact that they were murdered.

Murder should not be the lead, I thought, even if it was their end.

The untold story of murdered Chicago women seemed a good potential student project. We had one aim: to humanize the women and discard any notion that their lifestyle or any choices or mistakes made them somehow deserve to be murdered.

To “see” them and their humanity. And in so doing, to show that the lives of Black women and other women of color are no less than the lives of white women, or anyone else.

The facts don’t lie. Black women are murdered at twice the rate of women of other races in the United States. Indeed, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of female homicide statistics between 2003 and 2014, Black and indigenous women were killed as a result of homicide at rates more than double women of other races.

That speaks nothing of the vast well-documented disparity in the media’s coverage of murdered Black women versus the coverage of murdered white women.

From the beginning, I understood my students and I were embarking on an ambitious journey to try and tell the 51 women’s stories, most of their cases cold. Then the pandemic hit. We persevered.

Our online project went live this week before year’s end. It’s titled, “Unforgotten: The Untold Stories of Murdered Chicago Women.”

You will find there a half dozen “Portraits of Life” of the women whose families we spoke with; a couple dozen stories of related subjects as well as student’s reflections on covering the story; podcasts and videos; and other information, all of which we hope will serve as a collective one-stop resource on this case.

You will also find the story of Nancie Walker — a successful South Side businesswoman who loved dancing and who danced upon the rhythms and winds of life. Until 18 years ago when after being missing for seven weeks, her dismembered body was found in trash bags on the Bishop Ford Freeway. She was 55.

“I still dream about her nightly,” her sister Myrna Walker told us. “One night she reached out to touch me.”

But in reality, Nancie is no longer here. The share of her ashes each of her sisters keeps in an urn is a brutal reminder. Like the way she left this world — untimely, suddenly and violently, disappearing, like ashes upon a menancing swirling wind.

To view the project, visit: www.unforgotten51.com

Write John Fountain at: Author@johnwfountain.com

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.