Still Searching: Black Girls Matter event brings attention to disparities in cases of missing Black women and girls

In 2021 521,707 people were reported missing according to the National Crime and Information Center. Of the over half-million cases, 89,020 reports were Black women and girls.

Despite Black women making up less than 7% of the United States population, they account for over 17% of reported missing person cases. Yet their cases are less likely to be taken seriously than missing white women, whose stories captivate the public and garner high intensity coverage from media outlets.  

In 2016, Black women comprised over a quarter of Chicago’s 838 missing person cases.

“At the Latinx Cultural Center, we wanted to bring light to the issue of femicide around the world,” DePaul junior Frida Campos said. “We did a program in the fall on femicide in Latin America, and so now we want to bring it closer to home in Chicago, specifically focused on Black Women.” 

Hosted by DePaul’s Black and Latinx Cultural Centers, Las Estamos Bordando: Black Girls Matter invited participants to examine the discrepancy in the United States’ treatment of missing white women compared to Black women. 

“When I personally started thinking about why the United States stays silent about femicides, I thought it was mostly an oppression issue,” DePaul junior Teanla House said. “Literally because we’re women of color we’re not deemed as valuable within the United States.” 

As individuals immersed themselves in conversations of race, resilience and gender, event goers collected their crochet supplies and selected a missing person poster. Each paper held the picture and name of a Black woman or girl still actively missing in Chicago.

Names were then transferred from paper to fabric, memorializing the lives and legacies of women and girls who deserve to be found.

Beverly Johnson, a 67-year-old, was last seen in South Austin in September 2022. 26-year-old postal worker Kierra Coles vanished after withdrawing money at an ATM in Cottage Grove. 14-year-old Naomi Algarin was last seen in the 3700 block of West Diversey Avenue around 10 p.m. last December.

“I think the reason cases of Black women, girls and fem-identifying people aren’t being taken seriously by investigators is because our nation has a history of running off the exploitation of our people.” DePaul junior Mikyhia Worsham said. “The little airtime we do get is mostly spent defaming our character, falling back on harmful and outdated stereotypes, or watering down our stories for the easy consumption of the white palette.”

Despite missing black children comprising more than 35% of missing children’s cases, in the FBI’s database as of 2015, they approximate only 7% of media references.

“Until the day comes that white people are no longer the majority in fields like entertainment, media, politics and business … BIPOC women and fem folk will never receive the same attention that white women do,” Worsham said.

Additionally, a report published by Georgetown Law Center found that adults perceive Black girls between the ages of five to 19 as “less innocent” and “more adult-like” compared to their white peers. The study uncovered that the “adultification” of Black girls causes less empathy from adults, projection of harmful stereotypes and harsher punishment from figures of authority. 

More likely to be labeled as runaways by law enforcement, Black women and girls are prone to receiving less attention and resources such as Amber Alerts which require proof of abduction or that the child is in immediate danger of severe harm or death. 

Gaétane Borders, President and CEO of Peas in their Pods, an Atlanta-based nonprofit committed to giving a voice to missing children of color and their families, believes it’s attainable for missing children of color to receive the same publicity and attention as their white counterparts. 

“Statistics and figures don’t lie, and the reports are indicating that more than 40%of individuals that go missing are of color, but it doesn’t align with what we’re seeing being represented,” Borders said. “If you were to walk the streets right now and tell them [people] there was money on the line if they could name one missing person of color, let alone three or five, they wouldn’t be able to do it.” 

Borders advocacy began one year after Peas in their Pod’s 2008 foundation, after communicating with a parent whose boyfriend recently abducted her three children.

“While I was talking to this woman, my daughter pulled up to my knee, and she’s looking at me in the eye while this woman is screaming, ‘why won’t anybody help me,’” Borders said. “No one would help her … that’s when I realized it wasn’t a beeline … that the police didn’t always help.”

Rooted in bringing awareness to both active and cold cases, the nonprofit provides free services to families of the missing. From alert system activations, social media campaigns and organizations of search groups, Peas in their Pod offers immediate action to families and individuals in need. 

“The most heartbreaking piece for me is the cold cases, because when the news does report on these [missing person] cases, the news wants recent cases,” Borders said. “When we work with families that have cold cases, we encourage them to continue. You cannot stop. You have to still push the police department to keep the cases open and advocate.” 

Lakeisha Gray-Sewell, founder and executive director of Chicago-based nonprofit Girls Like Me, illustrated the media’s power in bringing attention and resources to the cases of missing Black women and girls. 

“There’s no educator who compares to the press,” Gray-Sewell said. “It is the entity that perpetuates stereotypes and stigma. It is also the entity that erases people. The more of us who are able to tell stories to raise awareness and amplify these missing Black girls’ names and stories, then the more we can interrupt the negative stereotypes.”

Focused on helping adolescent African American girls deconstruct and overcome stigma and harmful stereotypes, Girls Like Me aims to educate and generate social change in society’s treatment of Black girls. 

Furthermore, Girls Like Me emphasizes the names and faces of missing women and girls in Chicago. Other organizations, legislation, and policy working toward increased awareness and resources, such as a task force dedicated to bringing justice to murdered and missing women in Chicago, are also featured on the site.

“What we know is it doesn’t matter when something happened,” Gray-Sewell said. “What matters is if you keep the story alive.”

While many may feel powerless to make a difference or bring attention to cold cases, Gray-Sewell and Borders suggest staying up to date on what is happening in your community and sharing information concerning missing-person cases on social media. 

However, Gray-Sewell cautions against over-sensationalizing families’ losses — a perpetual risk within a true crime-obsessed society.

“People deserve dignity,” Gray-Sewell said. “They deserve to not be erased or for their stories to be erased and people also deserve closure. So even if it happened 20 years ago, we know that with more attention and resources things can possibly be solved.”