In 2004, Tamika Huston went missing from Spartanburg, N.C. Her family and friends organized an exhaustive search for the 24-year-old nursing student, but received frustratingly little press coverage from news outlets.
Derrica Wilson, a native of Spartanburg, heard about Huston's case and shared details with her sister-in-law Natalie Wilson. They were both troubled by how Huston's aunt, Rebkah Howard, was struggling to get national media coverage. Then came the disappearance of a white woman named Natalee Holloway in 2005, which became a huge national story, prompting the Wilsons to realize just how differently the media handled cases of missing women depending on their race.
“Natalee Holloway disappeared, and just saying her name alone, I'm sure your viewers can envision her face," Natalie tells Yahoo Life, recalling the wide news coverage at the time. Meanwhile, she recalls, “Tamika’s aunt reached out to those same media outlets and there was no interest in Tamika’s story at all. So Derrica and I decided to use our professions — I am in public relations and Derrica’s in law enforcement, and those are the two critical professions needed to help bridge the gap and bring awareness to our missing.”
Tragically, Huston was found dead more than a year after she disappeared. But the lack of national attention to her case inspired Derrica and Natalie to start the Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit effort to bring awareness to missing persons of color and provide resources to bring them home. Now the subject of a HBO four-part docuseries also called Black and Missing, Derrica and Natalie can be seen in action as they work to solve the cases of missing Black and brown women often ignored by the mainstream media.
“Derrica and I decided to do some research, and at the time [of the organization's founding], 30 percent of all persons missing were of color,” says Natalie. “Today, that number has grown to 40 percent.”
Before she began searching for the missing, Derrica spent a decade serving as the first and only Black female police officer in the city of Falls Church, Va. When she was on the force, she remembers working a case in which she rescued a Black teen from a domestic violence call, only to realize afterward that that teen was missing from the next town over.
“I never saw her flyer come across my desk,” explains Derrica. “Our community, they were numb at the fact that persons of color were going missing, because law enforcement were not taking the cases seriously.”
In their work, Derrica and Natalie have found that more missing Black teens than white are labeled as runways, which keeps an amber alert from being issued. They say that this lack of urgency causes a ripple effect and limits the amount of attention the case receives from the public, media and law enforcement agencies.
“Get rid of the classification ‘runaway,’ because if you are looking at a flyer and one says ‘runaway’ and the other one says ‘missing,’ the messaging is not created equal,” says Derrica. “When a family goes to law enforcement and reports their loved ones missing, they should not be turned away and told to wait 24 hours before they come back. We all know that the first 24 to 48 hours are the most critical moments when a person goes missing. We understand that not every case is gonna elevate to national mainstream media, but at the very minimum, take the police report, create a flyer, utilize your social media platforms.”
Natalie agrees that how a missing person is classified can dictate the kind of media attention they receive. The media can be a powerful tool not only in alerting the community, but it also puts pressure on law enforcement to invest more resources. For cases that get national attention, the increased exposure can make all of the difference.
“I see my role also as a publicist for these families, because they have no one that's reaching out to the media for them," says Natalie. “There was a young lady missing out of New York and we had the opportunity to take the case on The View. Within 14 minutes of the story airing on The View, we received a tip that led us right to this young lady, and within an hour, she was able to be reunited with her family."
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database (NamUS), more than 600,000 people go missing every year. With HBO’s Black and Missing, Derrica and Natalie hope to expose the inequities in how these cases are handled, and how systemic issues like poverty can make certain communities more vulnerable to predators.
“If they are running away, which we don't utilize that term as a classification in our organization, we need to understand what are they running from and who are they running to,” explains Derrica. “We know that human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry that’s happening right here on U.S. soil. Even in the docuseries, you will see that poverty is an issue in our community and people are trying to survive day by day. So if they are the vulnerable, these pimps are preying on them.”
Adds Natalie, “It’s a wake up call, and we hope that the media and law enforcement can look at themselves and address some of their biases.”
At the Black and Missing Foundation, the search for missing people is personal. In addition to hosting an annual walk to fundraise and honor the missing, the organization’s website has portals for people to join their efforts, donate money, report the missing and leave anonymous tips.
“There's no such thing as a day off,” says Derrica. “Even when I say I’m going to disconnect —and I’ll tell Natalie I’m shutting down and then she tells me she’s shutting down — we’re both posting and sending emails and texts.”
The work never stops, and both women are fully invested in bringing closure and justice to the families they work with. They know that cases of missing Black people remain unresolved four times longer than those of white people, so every recovery fuels their team to keep searching.
“What we’re doing is tough, but when we get those cases where it says ‘found,’ we were able to locate someone, it just makes us smile,” says Natalie. “We can’t give up on these families. We’re all that they have.”
—Video produced by Stacy Jackman.