EXCLUSIVE| ‘Our Black Girls’: L.A. Reporter Tells Stories of Forgotten Missing Women

The stress for the family of a missing person is overwhelming. There is terror, there is despair, but there is also hope. They hope their loved ones will come back to them at the end of the day.

Hoping for the best, the family of Felicia Marie Johnson, 24, of Houston, have issued a public appeal for information after her disappearance. She was last seen on April 15 when she stopped by Cover Girls Night Club to look for work. Community activist Quanell X claimed Johnson was offered a ride by an unidentified customer after his Uber was late. No one has since heard of Johnson.

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Felicia has been missing for a month now. A private investigator hired by Felicia’s family reportedly found her phone covered in blood. While Houston police said they were actively investigating the case, the Texas nonprofit search and rescue group EquuSearch also joined in the search for Johnson.

Image: Crime in Central Texas/Facebook

A few months ago, the story of Gabby Petito’s disappearance captivated the media and the public. The body of the 22-year-old was tragically found eight days after she was reported missing by her family. For black families, however, Gabby’s story served as a reminder that the media isn’t always equally concerned about their missing daughters. There would be an occasional update, but no special evening news. Their stories will gradually fade and the families will continue their search alone. It’s not something that only black families claim, but also data.

According to the National Crime Information Center, 268,884 women were reported missing in 2020. Nearly 100,000 of them were black women and girls. Black women are believed to make up less than 15% of the US population, yet they made up more than a third of all missing women reported in 2020.

And here’s why we don’t know their names: In a 2016 study called “Missing White Women Syndrome,” legal scholar Zach Sommers found that the media covers news of missing black people with fewer stories than when people from other demographic groups disappear. Will black women’s families continue to grieve alone as their daughters’ stories fade?

With this issue plaguing society in mind, 39-year-old Erika Marie Rivers started a website called “OurBlackGirls” (OBG). A journalist and activist for several years, Erika lives in Los Angeles. She launched the site in 2018 and calls it her “passion project.” OBG became a registered nonprofit in 2021. Through her website, Erika has told stories about as many of these black women as possible. Her website focuses on stories of black girls and women, many of whom haven’t been talked about very often. It lists black women who are missing or found dead.

“Our Black Girls”

Erika says her interest in highlighting the stories of these black women and girls stems not from some kind of morbidity, but from a sense of familiarity. “I was looking at faces that looked like mine and that made me identify with these victims or survivors. I was thinking of their families, their loved ones whose hearts ached during the disappearance of these women, who were angry because that they were abused, or who cried because they were murdered,” she says on the OBG website.

Journalist and activist Erika Marie (Image courtesy of Erika Marie)

Erika thinks the stories she talks about are “more than the headline ten o’clock news clip”. “These are and were our sisters, many of whom endured deception and/or violence. We shouldn’t sweep their stories under the rug and move on to the next hot topic,” she adds on the website. OBG also has an active Instagram page.

“As a collective media culture, we need to be more sensitive”

“In American media, racial and ethnic bias is the norm. It’s so ingrained in our culture that audiences are desensitized to uneven coverage. When it’s called out or becomes an issue, it’s easy to get pushed back. by people who seek out stereotypes about marginalized communities rather than join the fight for equity,” Erika told MEAWW. “OurBlackGirls aims to bring to light those stories of missing and murdered black women who, just to exist, deserve attention, as do their families who are often ignored by the mainstream media.”

Speaking of Felicia Johnson’s case, Erika said: “Felicia’s case was sent to me very early on, maybe a day or two after she disappeared, and since then the public has made sure that the information I think it’s important for us to stay consistent and not just treat cases as news cycles. We’re caught up in the need to share and post as soon as something happens, which is necessary. , but even after the hype wears off, many of these cases still exist.

“Furthermore, I believe that as a collective media culture, we need to be more responsive within the real criminal community in how we post, share and talk about cases. These are real people with real families who are going through real trauma, so adding speculation, information or victim blaming doesn’t help anyone,” she added.

The story that stayed with Erika

Felicia’s case is one of the last of thousands of disappearances over the years. OBG cataloged stories of black women from decades ago. There is the story of the disappearance of 22-year-old Michelle Chrysler, who was last seen with an unknown person in 1997. The website also talks about 22-year-old Sonya Tukes, who allegedly went to bed and disappeared on morning in 2004. Cellastine Wade, 18, has been missing from New Jersey since 1968.

When asked if there was one case in particular that affected her significantly, Erika said it was the 1989 disappearance of 15-year-old Monica Bennett. “Monica and her 13-year-old brother disappeared together and it was widely suspected that their stepfather had something to do with it. Monica was abandoned by almost every adult in her life – her stepfather sexually abused her. her and her sisters, and her her mother knew it but didn’t believe her and stayed with him Monica’s school and the police were alerted but her mother told them she was lying to get the be careful, so they didn’t do anything. It would take the mother falling on the abuse to break up with her husband, but then she forced Monica and her brother to help the stepdad move. They disappeared the same evening and after they disappeared, their mother reconciled with the stepfather and they moved their family to another state,” Erika said.

“Until the 2000s, Monica and her brother were classified as runaways and the police did not take the case seriously. They were considered black teenagers who probably left home because they did not like their beau. -father, but now foul play is suspected. . It is unthinkable to know that a man who was an abuser continued to live with the children he abused because the system would not protect black children,” she added.

Erika’s research

Speaking about her research, Erika said, “I usually start with government databases and work from there. OBG hoping to shed some light on local news or cold cases from their areas.. I work as an entertainment/music reporter from 4:00 p.m. to emails for OurBlackGirls. During the day, I spend hours getting ready for work and answering inquiries on OBG’s social media pages, as well as sharing posts from other outlets like Black Femicide, Black Girl Gone, Black Is Cold, Black & Missing Foundation and others who are on the front line for this cause.

Asked if she had ever met families of missing women, Erika said: “I have never met anyone in person, but I have corresponded with several families. Many of them contacted after having seen my posts on OBG, while others have heard of OBG and requested that I write about their loved ones From women and children missing for decades to unsolved murders, these loved ones have been so amazing not only in how they dealt with their tragedies, but also in how they were able to share their stories with such candor.”

“I have spent hours on the phone with people who were just children when their mothers disappeared, or parents who are still looking for answers. It is a privilege to be entrusted with these accounts and personal details, c It is therefore my priority to be sensitive to their experiences,” she added.

Erika has a full-time job that takes up a lot of her time. She says that despite her best efforts to shed light on cases of missing black women and try to get publicity on social media platforms, she is often dismissed and told that cases of missing black women are a ” political problem” which goes against their policies.

Erika says “consistency” is what the media should keep in mind when covering stories of black women victims of crime. “We see the mainstream media getting interested and rushing to get quotes or getting an article or story out while we’re in a news cycle, but once that’s over or the interest in a case has died down, reporters and journalists are no longer looking for cases of underrepresented people,” she said.

“True crime as a subject has become an explosive empire with widespread interest, so if people are consuming these traumas for entertainment, the least the news media can do is assign a daily or weekly segment on their stations to highlight these stories or to give a platform to grieving families,” she concluded.