Does Anyone Care When Black Men Go Missing?
Terrance Deon Williams' family is getting some celebrity help, but many more suffer alone
If he is still alive, Marcia Williams' son turned 36 on his birthday last Thursday. Unfortunately, Williams, of Naples, Fla., can't be sure because her son, Terrance Deon Williams, vanished on Jan. 11, 2004, and has not been seen or heard from since.
Terrance Williams is among the hundreds of African American adults reported missing in the U.S., according to Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. Each day, about 40 percent of the 2,300 people reported missing are people of color, FBI data show. And slightly more than half of the total number of missing people are men, according to analysis by the National Center for Missing Adults. However, black men make up a demographic that many experts say is more vulnerable than missing people of other racial and age groups; often less urgency is shown by law enforcement and media about finding missing black men than is displayed when a white adult, child or teenager disappears.
Monica Caison, a white woman and founder of Wilmington, N.C.-based Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons, says she’s found it particularly hard to round up search effort resources when the missing person isn’t “that pretty, all-American white girl with her whole life ahead of her."
Caison says that some people are downright “ignorant” and even racist when a missing person isn’t young and white.
"You’d be astonished by what happens on some cases,” Caison tells Loop 21. “We had a mentally ill African American woman lost in the streets of San Bernardino [California] and I had to argue with a copy center employee who would only give me a ‘price break’ on 50 color flyers.”
So, for the loved ones of missing black adults, a special kind of resolve is needed to not lose hope and give up the search.
It is a resolve that Marcia Williams has shown since Jan. 11, 2004, when her son Terrance left his apartment to attend a party with some of his co-workers. He never returned. Williams reported him missing after getting a call from his roommate saying that he had not seen or heard from Terrance in two days.
Nine years later, Williams has no one in Naples -- her then-husband left her in Florida two months after Terrance's disappearance and all of her family lives more than 730 miles away in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- but she refuses to leave the city. She maintains a home there. She goes to work every day as a bank teller. And she looks for her son. It's her life now.
“I’m still Marcia, and I’m still a real person; I just have a trial that I’m going through,” she says. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to find my son.”
This kind of grounded self-determination is a remarkable achievement for anyone searching for a loved one, says Caison, who also is Williams’ case advocate. Caison's role entails identifying resources, drumming up publicity and providing emotional support. Williams reached out to Caison's organization after feeling like she'd exhausted all good will with the Collier County Sheriff's Department regarding her son's case.The financial strain and psychological trauma associated with what may be an indefinite search for a missing person can tear families apart and send people into a downward spiral.
“A lot of people will even be let go from their jobs. They’ll say, ‘I need to be home in case [he or she calls.]’ They can’t go on as if nothing happened," Caison explains. "The anxiety sets in and it’s difficult to work and thrive. I’ve seen people become homeless because of the trauma of missing a person.”
However, despite the stress, Williams is a fighter, Caison says.
“I’ve watched [Williams] blossom,” said Caison. “She started a life down there because she will not abandon her son."
When she's not working at her job, Williams works to publicize her son's case, making appearances on TV and cable, including MSNBC, TV One, and the Discovery Channel's "Disappeared":
Two weeks ago, after close to a decade since he first vanished, Terrance’s case got a needed jolt of attention when filmmaker Tyler Perry, the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, and Ben Jealous of the NAACP joined Williams in Florida to announce a $100,000 reward for any information on her son’s disappearance and on the disappearance of another man, Felipe Santon. Both men went missing in 2004 after crossing paths with Collier County Sherriff’s Deputy Steven Calkins. Calkins has never been charged with a crime, but he was fired from the force in 2005 after a sheriff's department investigation found that he had been inconsistent in what he had to say regarding his interactions with both missing men.
For his part, Perry says he decided to become involved in hopes of finding justice and answers for both men. He urges civil rights leaders to do more about men of color who are missing. For families of missing persons, particularly missing black people, this kind of media attention and involvement of celebrity is the stuff of dreams.
The financial toll of searching for a loved one can set in much quicker for African American families, according to the Black and Missing Foundation Inc., which works to bring attention to cases involving missing African Americans.
“A lot of them exhaust their savings; something as simple as printing flyers can be costly,” said Natalie Wilson, who co-founded BAMFI in 2008. “A lot of these families are low-income.”
Having the financial and celebrity support of Perry and the others is among the things for which Williams is grateful, even as she continues the difficult task of trying to get answers about what happened to her son.
“I have Monica. I have Al Sharpton. I have Tyler Perry. I have the NAACP. Everyone is all on the same page,” Williams says. “I will probably be trying to wrap my mind around it all for the rest of my life, but I’m not leaving until I find my son.”