Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Portraits of Life: Stolen 'Like Ashes In A Violent Wind'

Nancie Walker as a child
Nancie Carolyn Walker
By John W. Fountain

SHE DANCED. ON THE rhythms and winds of life, she danced. As if it were a part of her soul, life and being, she danced. Watching her dance—drift upon the elements, of music and drumbeats, as if they were one—is among the most vivid recollections of family and friends. It is the way they remember her before she left this world untimely, suddenly and violently, disappearing, like ashes upon a menacing swirling wind.

Her name is Nancie Carolyn Walker. But those closest to her all called her Carolyn. She danced most of her life, including at Frances Parker High School on Chicago’s Near North Side, where she was also the captain of the cheerleading squad. Dancing remained a lifelong passion that she once studied at Columbia College before deciding to carve out a career as an entrepreneur. She also attended Roosevelt University.

Nancie loved hushpuppies. She loved to go out to various restaurants and sample different foods. She loved to “step”—the Chicago-bred bop and cool version of ballroom dancing to smooth grooves in the key of R&B, where couples glide majestically across the dance floor. She was loved. And she loved back. And her love is not forgotten.



“When I lost her, I could not swallow my food. I felt like I was doing her an injustice because I could still eat and Nancie couldn’t.”

Myrna Walker, Nancie's sister



Nancy Walker and her mother.
Endless tales of life and love emanate from the collective of memories found among family of the Unforgotten 51 as much as their grief over the wheels of justice that turn slowly, if at all, for them. 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 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.

Community activists and analysts say the media’s role in raising public awareness on the cases of murdered or missing Black women, which ultimately can raise temperature on police to fully investigate and solve these cases, is critical.

“The media’s blatant disregard for minority victims of violence has reverberating consequences on a number of levels,” writes Cheryl L. Neely, author of “You’re Dead So What? Media, Police and the Invisibility of Black Women As Victims of Homicide. “First, it is clear that when society cares about victims of crime, and can empathize with their experience, the result is public outrage that has a catalytic effect on police response…”

It is an effect that the Reverend Robin Hood, a pastor and community activist on Chicago’s West Side, calls essential to seismically shifting how police and society treat the cases of murdered Black women and other women of color.

“Somebody in our community got killed and it became personal,” Hood says. “When you’ve been doing this work for so many years and you try to talk to law officials and they say, ‘Oh, well, the lived a high-risk lifestyle,” it mischaracterizes and stereotypes the victims collectively, labeling them as “prostitutes,” or “drug addicts,” as expendable societal castaways. 

“That has to stop,” adds Rev. Hood. “And the only way that’s going to stop is if you have the right people to take the message from the community.”

That message: That these women were not trash. Not widgets. Not just a statistic. Not forgotten. That despite the way their killer discarded their breathless brutalized bodies in assorted alleys, vacant lots, abandoned buildings or set ablaze in garbage cans from Chicago’s South Side to the West Side, they are human. Not garbage.

They were flesh and blood, heart and soul, human. Someone’s daughter, mother, cousin, aunt, sister…

Indeed Nancie was a loving big sister, daughter, aunt. She was curious, an inquisitive soul—slender with piercing brown eyes. And it is her physical absence as well as the loss of her friendship and her commitment to sisterhood that, even 17 years after her murder, causes those who miss her to remember like yesterday the fateful news that came in March 2003, seven weeks after her family reported her missing.   

 “I went through an emptiness. I felt empty. I couldn't function anymore,” her sister Myrna Walker, 70, recalls, adding that Nancie would come downtown to meet her at work everyday so they could go to lunch together at Wendy’s. Nancie’s death and the brutality of her killer were almost too much to comprehend.

“I would go places and not remember how I got there, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat.”

“When I lost her, I could not swallow my food. I felt like I was doing her an injustice because I could still eat and Nancie couldn’t,” Myrna continues, adding that after her sister’s murder she came down with shingles, lost weight and underwent therapy for five years.  

It shook her to her core. She had lost her big sister, her  “best friend… my girl.”

Growing Up

The eldest of six sisters, Nancie was born on Aug. 15, 1947, in Birmingham, Alabama, on a Southern red-clay-dirt summer day.

Her mother chuckles when asked for a favorite memory. It is an adoring motherly laugh, the kind that emanates from a soul filled with memories now grown bittersweet. Nancie was the child who really "got" her mother. “She understood me quite a bit,” Willie Walker Anderson, 89, says.

As a child, Nancie was busy. From 6 months old on, she was always into everything. Even at 8, Nancie knew what she wanted to do with her life. She dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur, even if dancing held her heart. That way, she figured, she would never have to work for anyone else, ever.

Nancie attended grammar school in Alabama until her family migrated to Chicago in 1961. Growing up, she and her sisters liked to eat chocolate chip cookies and black walnut ice cream. Life in the housing “projects” on the 13th floor, at 4445 S. Cottage Grove Ave., was good. “Everybody on the block was Auntie and Uncle,” Myrna recalls of life on Chicago’s South Side in the 60’s. “We had a lot of relatives and none of them had the same blood.” 

The projects back then weren’t a destination, just a pitstop. “My mother was determined not to stay in the projects,” Myrna says, adding that a few years after they moved into the projects, they moved into their own house, which the family still owns today.

In high school, Nancie was captain of her cheerleading squad, although modern dance was one of her favorite styles. She would also later study jazz and ballet. Myrna suspects that part of her big sister’s love of dance came from watching TV growing up, especially seeing go-go girls dancing to the Beatles. “As a kid, she just liked shaking,” she says, laughing.

Nancie graduated from Francis Parker and attended Columbia College, where she majored in accounting, choosing a career that would provide greater longevity and more income than dance. Even after pursuing multiple careers, she stayed true to dance, opening her own studio in Englewood, where she taught yoga and jazzercise. She also shared her passion for dance with her Buddhist community at Dance SGI (Soka Gakkai International) Chicago.

None of those who knew Nancie were surprised by her success, which included becoming landlord of five residential buildings she purchased, a beauty salon, and a trucking company.

“She was an entrepreneur at heart and we were both Leo's. Both of us were always talking about ideas,” says Delmarie Cobb, Nancie’s longtime close friend and onetime roommate who were more like sisters.

Their lives were supposed to be filled with many more conversations and laughter. But in 2003, on an unseasonably warm but overcast winter’s day in January, it would be the last time that loved ones would hear from Nancie.


Nancie Walker (on left) circa 1970's with
longtime friend Delmarie Cobb.
Her sister Myrna sensed something was wrong when Nancie didn't show up for lunch. 

“I waited and I waited and I waited… I called her and she never answered her phone. I called her all evening.” No answer. The sisters talked every morning. The next day, Tuesday, Myrna called again and again—all day long. Still, no answer. This was not like Nancie at all. Indeed the last time Myrna had spoken with her sister, she had called Tuesday to say she was on her way downtown to meet her for lunch.

Two days passed and still no word. It was Thursday. And Myrna sensed something might be wrong but wasn’t completely alarmed. She figured she would surely be able to reach Nancie then, After all, she held dance classes with her Buddhist dance troupe on Thursdays and never missed. Myrna called. Nancie had not shown up. 

“That’s when I knew something was wrong. When they said she didn't show up for class, I was (like) Oh, my God!”

Myrna, filled with anxiety and fear, decided to go to her sister’s house for a wellbeing check. “When I walked in her house, I knew she hadn’t been there in a while…”

Delmarie Cobb, a former television news reporter and longtime media and political consultant, remembers the call. “Myrna is trying to get ahold of you. Nancie’s missing…”

They contacted police. The police, the family says, were not particularly moved to action. They figured it was a run-of-the-mill walk away from your home and life case. But that just didn't make any sense. Nancie was a businesswoman. She had made a run to the bank on the day she disappeared. Why would she just up and walk away? The answer was simple: She wouldn’t.

The cops weren’t convinced. Was it a domestic? Alcohol? Drugs? Something else? Whatever the case, they would not accept the family’s sense of conviction that something was gravely wrong. The cops basically said as much. They said wait until Monday.

“Monday? I said, ‘We can’t wait ‘til no damn Monday,” Cobb recalls. She helped the family organize a press conference at a South Side beauty salon. Days passed with still no word on Nancie’s whereabouts as Myrna and her sisters and Cobb continued to press police, to insist that her disappearance be featured as a Missing Person on police website, to saturate the city with her picture and to search.

During that time, the story of Laci Peterson, a white woman from Modesto, California, who was 8 months pregnant with her first child when she disappeared and whose husband Scott Peterson was later convicted of first-degree murder in her death, dominated national headlines and television news. Nancie’s disappearance drew no such attention—a fact not lost on Cobb. She remembers the local newspaper carrying a story about Laci on page one, and a story about Nancie buried on page 57.

Less than a year earlier, the story of 7-year-old Alexis Patterson, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin girl who disappeared in 2002 while on her way to school one morning highlighted the glaring disparity in her case versus the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart, a white 14-year-old, abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Smart’s case drew widespread national attention from the news media, and the Patterson case comparatively nothing—further illustrating that the cases of missing or murdered Black girls or Black women most often fall by the media wayside.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to compute this equation. It's simple, says Cobb: “It’s as if Black women, our lives, have no value…”


Seven weeks after Nancie disappeared, on March 19, 2003, the news came. Bad news. The kind of news that stuns the soul. They had found her, or what was left of her. She had been dismembered, her body parts placed in trash bags and left on the Bishop Ford Highway. She was 55.

Seventeen years later, her mother's voice resonates with the agony of losing a daughter to murder, perhaps made even harder to bear because justice for Nancie still has not come. And like many other slain Chicago Black women, her case has grown cold over time, even if the authorities’ handling of those cases was never more than lukewarm to begin with.

And what about justice?

“It’s such a hard question,” Myrna says. “My mom is old. We’re all older. It’s almost to the point we don’t want to relive it again. …I don't think I could stand it if we went to court… what they did to her. What is the justice now. I don't know.”

But for Cobb, the fire for Justice for Nancie still burns.

“There’s someone walking around here who thinks they got away with murder,” she explains. “And we can’t let them get away with murder.”

But murderers can’t steal memories. Can’t erase sentimental recollections of loved ones stitched into the heart and soul. Cannot still the feet of a loving sister, daughter, aunt who danced gracefully upon the pages of their lives.

“I still dream about her nightly,” Myrna says. “One night she reached out to touch me.”

But in reality, Nancie is no longer here. The share of her ashes that each of her sisters keeps in an urn is a brutal reminder. Like the way she left this world—untimely, suddenly and violently, disappearing, like ashes in a menacing swirling wind.

Mallory Renee Nickelson contributed to this report. 

Nancie Walker in high school on the cheerleading team where she was captain.
(Photos: Provided by Family)