What About All Of America's Daughters?

Gabby Petito, 22, was reported missing on Sept. 11, while traveling across the US. with her fiancé.
Her remains were discovered Sept. 19, in Wyoming.

By John W. Fountain

The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, 22, is a great tragedy and loss, and my heart goes out to her and her family. We should all mourn for Gabby. For this is an American tragedy.

But we should equally mourn for Reo-Renee Holyfield. For Gwendolyn Williams, Nancie Walker, and the mostly 51 African-American women in Chicago slain from 2001 to 2018, and discarded like trash, set on fire or mutilated and whose murders remain mostly unsolved. 

Theirs is equally an American tragedy. Like the stories of thousands of missing and murdered women across America whose stories don't get the national—or local—press' attention the way stories of missing or murdered white women do.

It is a glaring tale of great disparity, one in which the American press, which purports to be fair and equal and a purveyor of truth, fairness and democracy ignores the stories of so many of America's daughters slain, missing, stolen... Missing are the stories of America’s daughters of color.

That much is clear even in the story of the Unforgotten 51, and untold thousands of missing women of color nationwide.

This story keeps cropping up. Every time a white woman or girl goes missing. Then the disparity glares—at least for those of us in communities of color... 

Theirs is an American tragedy in Black and white. It is revealing with glaring clarity—a tale of the disparity in the media’s coverage of cases of murdered of missing Black women and other women of color. A real-life tale of the gaping divide in how law enforcement and society at large views and treats their cases, which far exceed the rate of violent crime against white women.

The Unforgotten 51 is a project undertaken by John Fountain and his students at Roosevelt University and examined the case of 51 mostly African-American women slain in Chicago from 2001 to 2018.

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 the Centers for Disease Control, an 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. Moreover, a 2010 CDC report found that Black and indigenous women also experienced rape, stalking and/or physical violence at rates 20 to 50 percent higher than those experienced by Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, Asian or Pacific Islander women.

The American news media are not color blind. 

They do not tell with the same ferocity, depth or intention the stories of Black and brown women, and other women of color. This is a fact well documented and well known by me, a reporter for more than 30 years.

Alexis Patterson, 7.

Once a national correspondent at the New York Times, I remember calling my editor and proposing a story about Alexis Patterson, a missing 7-year-old Black girl who vanished May 3, 2002, in Milwaukee from her school playground. I mentioned in the same breath the story of Diamond and Tionda Bradley, two little Black Chicago girls ages 10 and 3 when they vanished months earlier on July 6, 2001. 

I remember with sobering clearness my white editor quickly dismissing the idea of that story with no room for discussion.

That was, until questions and criticisms swirled about the lack of national coverage over Alexis’ story while a national media frenzy and firestorm ensued over the kidnapping in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June5, 2002, of Elizabeth Smart, 14, who was white. Nine months later, she was found and her abductors arrested.

The constant barrage of news coverage kept her story front and center. Black girls and women and other females of color are not so lucky. Under public scrutiny—and after a Times’ spokesperson had assured an inquiring outside reporter about its lack of coverage in Patterson’s case, I was suddenly some days later, dispatched to write Alexis’ story.  

Whether the news media are guilty of a sin of omission in their blackout when it comes to covering these kinds of cases, what is clear in my mind as a journalist for more than 30 years is that they/we ought to know better by now. And if we know better, we ought to do better. Otherwise, such disparity in news coverage is a sin of commission.

I would rather believe that is not the case. For if it is, it speaks to something more insidious, perhaps even of the news media’s inability or unwillingness to see Black and brown women’s and girls’ lives and deaths as valuable as white ones. 

This much I also know: This story keeps cropping up. Every time a white woman or girl goes missing. Then the disparity glares—at least for those of us in communities of color, where the absence of stories of our missing and murdered daughters in the national press is as stark as their unsolved cases. 

Gwendolyn Williams is among Chicago's Unforgotten 51

It is a dilemma with which I have wrestled as a reporter in some of America’s most storied newsrooms, where I too often have found myself trying to convince white editors that stories about Black lives mattered.  

I remember in 1989, when as a cub reporter at the Chicago Tribune I wrote an enterprise story about the shootings and murders of Black children who were victims of violent crime—most of them shot. Among them was 6-month-old Rashonda Flowers, fatally shot in the head as her mother pushed her in a baby stroller. 

I remember a white female editor emerging from the final news meeting that day before publication and saying that while she had lobbied for the story to be on page one, editors ultimately had decided to place my story in Metro instead. The headline of the story they chose over one about dead Black or wounded children on Monday Sept. 3, 1990 read: “Snake Dance Ritual Fuels Clash of Hopi Values”

The editor encouraged me for my efforts. “Keep writing these stories… They’ll come around,” I remember her saying.

I have never forgotten. Nor have I forgotten my inability to convince my editors at the Times to allow me to write a story about Rodney McAllister, 10, a St. Louis boy mauled to death in early March 2001, his body gnawed on by dogs. 

“We’ve already got a dog story,” an editor explained the rationale for their disinterest. 

“A dog story?” I thought then. “A damn dog story?” It was a story about a little boy.

Thirty years after the Tribune editor’s encouragement, I’m still not so sure that the national news media will ever come around. But this much I have resolved: Their stories, our stories, matter. And we must tell them. Whether the mainstream press ever comes around or not. 

For there is power in storytelling. There is power, great possibility and promise in those journalistic storytellers who choose to be colorblind and also sensitive to the stories of missing and murdered Black women and girls—and males—and other women and girls of color.

And even in my greatest disappointment and anger over the mainstream news media’s failure in this regard, my hope has been anchored in the power of journalism. In the belief that the ability to affect change through storytelling extends far beyond America’s newsrooms. In the belief that if we tell human stories of power and truth, of loss, life and tragedy with skill, craft, persistence, consistency and relentlessness, we can ultimately help usher in change. And we don't need the mainstream press to do that, only our pens, hearts and commitment.

Now, 20 years since their disappearance, Diamond and Tionda would be 30 and 23 respectively. Alexis would be 26. They are still missing. There are no stories about them, blaring on national broadcasts. Nor any about the Unforgotten 51.

And yet, all of our daughters' lives must matter:

Gabby. Nancie. Gwendolyn. Reo. 

All of them. Every single one.

Email: Author@Johnwfountain.com

To read about the "Unforgotten 51" project led by John Fountain and his students at Roosevelt University visit the website: www.unforgotten51.com

Nancie walker is among Chicago's Unforgotten 51