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More than victims in unsolved murder cases, these 51 women were human

No matter how sordid the details of some of these victims’ past, they were flesh and blood, heart and soul, human. All 51.

A graphic cover for the “Unforgotten” project by John Fountain and his students at Roosevelt University.
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Not trash. Not widgets. Not just a statistic. Not forgotten. Despite the way their killer discarded their breathless brutalized bodies in assorted alleys, vacant lots, abandoned buildings or set ablaze in garbage cans in Chicago, they were human.

Not garbage.

Say their names. Look into their eyes. See their souls.

No matter how sordid the details of some of these victims’ past, they were flesh and blood, heart and soul, human. All 51.

That was my declaration a year ago in a column posted on Valentine’s Day. And it is my declaration today, having completed with my journalism students at Roosevelt University a yearlong project that sought to tell the stories of Nancie Walker, Reo Renee Holyfield, Gwendolyn Williams, Diamond Turner and other women among the 51.

The case 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 help humanize the women, beyond the “prostitute” and “drug addict” label under which all of them had been clustered. Our reporting uncovered that was a lie.

But even if it were true, these women were human.

If 51 dogs were slaughtered across Chicago, then this city would be up in arms. Why not over the murder and desecration of these women?

Is it because it’s a group of mostly Black women?

It is a question I have pondered. Except as a veteran journalist who has witnessed firsthand the lack of diversity inside American newsrooms, which manifests as a lack of parity in coverage of Black communities, I arrived at the answer long ago: Our lives don’t matter.

In the portraits of murdered women, most editors in mainstream newsrooms do not see their sisters, mothers, aunts, daughters. It isn’t personal.

For me, it’s personal.

Many of these women were poor — from the other side of the tracks where I’m from. They — we — are society’s “disposables.”

So their cases go neglected — by politicians, police and the news media. And if and when the cases do resurface — cold and still unsolved — officials kindly explain them away and they soon fizzle into the media dark hole.

We shake our heads, say how sad it is, sip lattes, turn on Netflix. It seems we have all become too damn numb and accepting of this human rights atrocity of stealing the lives of Black women like a thief in the night.

“But what can I do?” It is a question I am often asked by good, well-meaning people, moved and sickened by this story.

My answer is simple: Do something.

Maybe bombard the mayor, police, state’s attorney and politicians’ offices with phone calls, demanding they be transparent about the status of investigations, and commit to routine briefings with the community and victims’ families. Maybe demand that the news media do a better job of covering “our” stories. Perhaps post pictures and stories of the Unforgotten 51 on social media to help raise public awareness.

But whatever you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t do nothing.

A woman who lives in Florida learned of the case and was moved to stitch a quilt in their honor. Beverly Reed Scott, a Chicago community activist, chose to become an advocate for “The Ladies,” as she calls them, organizing informational meetings to keep the case alive.

My students and I chose to write. And if our work makes some small difference, perhaps brings even one family solace, or moves us all to do something, then our labor will not have been in vain.

For it will mean that these women are not forgotten.

To read more about the project by John Fountain and his students at Roosevelt University, visit unforgotten51.com