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The lesson of Carlee Russell? Learn the names of these missing Black women.

The Washington Post
Monica Hesse
July 27, 2023

Last week, a 15-year-old Black girl named Janiya Duffie went missing in Georgia. She was last spotted on a street named Tranquility Loop in the town of Lovejoy on July 19. She was wearing blue shorts and a red jacket. She is 5-foot-7; she weighs about 140 pounds. If you know anything of her disappearance or whereabouts, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office is waiting for your call.

The day before Janiya Duffie disappeared, a Black woman in Mississippi named Latasha Coleman, 46, was seen on the 100 block of Hidden Valley Lane in Hinds County and has not been seen since. She is believed to have been in her car, a 2002 gray Acura, and she has a medical condition that might impair her judgment.

All this week, I have been reading essays about Carlethia “Carlee” Russell. Russell, the Alabama nursing student who called 911 on July 13 to say she’d spotted a toddler walking alongside the highway. Russell, whose car and cellphone were found abandoned at the scene, whose disappearance prompted massive media attention — this was an eerie case, a terrifying case — until she returned home a few days later with a story that made little sense. She admitted on Monday that the whole thing had been a hoax. In a statement provided by her attorney, she asked for the public’s forgiveness.

All this week, I have been asked, as a columnist who writes about women, whether I have any thoughts on a missing woman like Carlee Russell. Whether her case is infuriating or tragic. What it means.

These are my thoughts about Carlee Russell:

Janiya and Latasha disappeared around the same time, and we should know their names.

Here is another thought about Carlee Russell:

In September 2016, 21-year-old Keeshae Jacobs told her mother, Toni, that she was going to spend the night with friends in Richmond. Toni was trying to let her youngest daughter have some independence and tried not to grill her about the details. The next day, Toni was at work when Keeshae’s brother called and said his sister had missed their planned breakfast date.

Toni told me that Keeshae had been a mama’s girl. She and Keeshae used to joke that Keeshae was never going to move out; she was going to become an old lady still living at home. Now it has been nearly seven years since Keeshae slept in her bed, “and I just want closure,” Toni said. Whatever happened to Keeshae, the not knowing was the unbearable part.

Jessica Abba has been missing from Laurel, Md., since June 2022, according to the database of the Black & Missing Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to publicizing the disappearances of people of color. Kierra Coles has been missing from Chicago since October 2018, when police found her car with her packed lunch still inside; she was about three months pregnant. Samatha Baremore has been missing from Winston-Salem, N.C., since April 2004, when she was seen leaving her job at a nightclub and getting into a taxi. She has a tattoo on her thigh for her deceased father. Her friends sometimes called her “Pinky.”

Black & Missing was founded because Black women disappear every day and because most of them do not get the attention given to Carlee Russell. Because Black people make up about 14 percent of the population, according to the most recent census data — but, according to 2022 FBI data, represent about a third of all missing persons. The foundation’s co-founder, Natalie Wilson, told me on Tuesday that she and her sister-in-law started the organization after the two of them noticed how the 2004 disappearance of Tamika Huston in Spartanburg, S.C., received little attention, but the disappearance of Jennifer Wilbanks (who was White and whose disappearance was later revealed as a hoax) became an obsession on national news.

The circumstances behind Carlee Russell’s faked disappearance were so horrifying, so unlikely, that it seems easy to understand why her case may have captured attention in the way it did. But all of the cases are horrifying. Going back years and decades, all of the cases of missing Black women are horrifying.

Think of these women instead. Learn these names instead.

Sonya Tukes, who got a mysterious call from a pay phone in 2004 and then disappeared overnight. Teeara Black, who left for her father’s house in Philadelphia in 2015 but never arrived.

Tiffany Foster: “We have a family group chat, and when nobody had heard from Tiffany in two days, we knew something was wrong,” Kimberly Bryan told me this week about her sister, whose abandoned car was found 30 miles from her Georgia home, purse and keys still inside, in 2021. Her fiancé was later charged with moving the vehicle but was not arrested for her disappearance, which remains unsolved.

Felicia Cochran: “I only got to experience her for 10 years,” her daughter Brandi Martin told me this week.

Felicia has been missing since 1992. More than three decades. Felicia Cochran had been missing for five years before Carlee Russell was even born, before the hoax case of one non-missing woman took away attention that should have been paid to thousands of actual missing women.

Brandi remembers her mom as being quiet and gentle and loving to read. A woman who had dreamed of a job involving travel, but who had instead accepted a job managing a Hardee’s restaurant, so she could be present for her children.

She was last seen outside of a beauty salon in Pell City, Ala. Then her abandoned car was found burned by the side of the road.

Felicia will be nearly 60 years old if she is still alive. Brandi said she thinks of her mother every day. She still wants to know what happened.

Photo credit: Black and Missing Foundation

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