The invitation came without ceremony, just like the note that uninvited us.
Sometime this past spring I received a request from a local morning television news show for me and one of my students to talk about the “Unforgotten 51” — the case of 51 mostly African-American women murdered in Chicago since 2001.
The cases, which remain largely unsolved, were the focus of a project by my journalism class last year at Roosevelt University.
Our aim was to humanize the women whose unsolved murders have become police cold case files and who have been publicly categorized as street sex workers and/or drug addicts. They are the kind of labels that dehumanize.
That allow us to separate “them” from “us.” To somehow digest, if not justify, their demise, even the absence of their story from mainstream news media.
They are the kinds of insidious mischaracterizations that reduce humans to being villains, or inanimate objects. That makes some among us disposable, subhuman, or deserving of having crossed paths with a killer who extinguished their life.
The tantalizing meat of the story was that these women — as theorized by the Murder Accountability Project in Alexandria, Virginia — were the victims of at least one serial killer and also the sordid details. Strangled or asphyxiated, their bodies were discarded in vacant lots, alleys or trashcans mainly on the West and South Sides, sometimes set on fire or dismembered.
The serial killer theory, according to Thomas Hargrove, the Murder Accountability Project’s founder, is based on a computer algorithm. It’s not mere conjecture, he has asserted, simply science.
Lost in the numbers and the heinous details and the media’s interest in a sensational case, however, was the women’s humanity. That is why I suggested my students take on the project. To bring flesh and blood and heart and soul to the story.
To tell the story of these women — someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, someone’s daughter…
To discover truth and facts about their lives. Among them Nancie Walker, Gwendolyn Williams, Reo Renee Holyfield, Diamond Turner and others… To show that their lives mattered. And that their lives and deaths still ripple upon the psyches and souls of families and communities that still long for justice.
In our reportorial search for truth, we found that the characterization of all the victims as street sex workers or drug addicts was false. In our humanity, we declared, “So what, if they were. None of them deserved to die like this.”
And from beginning to end, we maintained our focus: To tell their story, to make them human so that perhaps all of Chicago would take note and choose to remember and never forget.
The morning news show invitation was another opportunity to tell their stories.
“I am reaching out to see if you and Samantha Latson would be interested in a Zoom interview next week on our morning show to discuss the Unforgotten 51,” read the email from a local producer. “Please let me know if we can set something up…”
We were set. Then a week later, a day before we were to be interviewed, I received a follow-up email:
“I’m really sorry — but the news director has decided the segment is too grim for morning TV.”
Too grim? Grimmer than the daily homicidal body count, mass shootings nationwide and COVID-19 death tally, and the various and sundry catastrophes to which we awaken daily on the morning news? Too grim for women slain in Chicago and for whom there is still no justice?
Too grim, really? For who? Maybe for you, Dear News Director.
But even without ceremony or your help, I vow to keep telling their story.
To read the Unforgotten 51 project, visit: https://www.unforgotten51.com/