The Disappearance of Phylicia Barnes

The media’s inattention to missing women of color is nothing new. Criticism of that trend isn’t either—and yet, it continues.

Consider how names such as Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway or JonBenet Ramsey rank in name recognition, even years after their disappearances.

Then consider names such as Starr Snead, Artdrunetta Hobbs or Lachrica Jefferson. All are women of color who disappeared in the last 25 years.

You’ve never heard of any of those young women, have you?

As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism told the AP in 2005: “To be blunt, blond white chicks who go missing get covered and poor, black, Hispanic or other people of color who go missing do not get covered.”

And yet, even with such high-profile media criticism, police departments, families and advocates still have a hard time capturing the public’s attention when women of color are reported missing.

Consider a recent case in Baltimore: On the Tuesday following Christmas, then 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes was visiting family in the city. According to reports, on the afternoon of December 28, 2010, she left her half-sister’s apartment—and hasn’t been seen since.

From the beginning, Baltimore Police Department officials say they tried to involve the news media in their search for Barnes. According to a February 21, 2011 story from NPR:

This case hasn’t gotten the same kind of wall-to-wall play in national media as the cases of other young, pretty, missing women, such as Natalee Holloway, the blond Alabama teen who disappeared in 2005 on a trip with schoolmates in Aruba.

Baltimore Police Department spokesman [Anthony] Guglielmi says he remembers the Holloway case.

“It’s almost like we had a minute-by-minute update,” Guglielmi says. “CNN had a little ticker on the bottom of their screen. Everybody knew Natalee Holloway. They knew her picture. Why can’t we know Phylicia Barnes?”

The implication, of course, is that because Barnes is African American, her disappearance didn’t pique the media’s interest.

That’s despite the high numbers of African Americans who are reported missing. According to the FBI, of the total number of people reported missing in 2010, more than half were women (305,449 women compared with 260,211 men) and more than a third were African American.

A student at Union Academy in Monroe, N.C., Barnes was bright and athletic. Her family history indicates neither drug use nor reasons why she might be considered a runaway.

When website comment boards overran with rumors about “strange men and alcohol” at the apartment of Barnes’s half-sister, Deena Barnes, Deena took to the airwaves to dispel those victim-blaming accusations.

Online agitating by black and black feminist websites such as The New Black Woman has drawn increasing local and national attention to Barnes’ case. The website devoted a week to Barnes in January. (To its credit, The Baltimore Sun gave the story early and ongoing coverage.)

As Barnes’s case finally gains attention, thousands of other similar cases nationwide go unnoticed. In fact, the disappearances of  many women of color–especially poor women who may grapple with drug addiction or sexual exploitation–oftentimes don’t receive the attention they deserve, even from investigators.

In a feature I am writing for the Spring issue of Ms., I explore what happened when the bones of nine women and two teenagers were discovered in the desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico—and how investigators, as well as the public, look away when society’s most vulnerable women disappear.

As for Barnes, BPD investigators continue to work with the FBI to find the teenager, who has now been missing for more than two months. Anyone with information about her disappearance should call 855-223 -0033.

Photo of Phylicia Barnes from The Root.


  1. I feel so ashamed and sad to be a white woman. I hope they find Phylicia Barnes alive, well and happy.

    • White Guilt is justified in the macro. While it’s healthy to feel this as an individual, redemption only occurs when one works to eradicate the injustice at its core. Do not feel ashamed; do not be sad; change the world.

  2. RGuillory says:

    Thanks so much for this important piece! When our sisters are forgotten, we are too – we can't let that happen.

  3. Thank you for bringing this to light, again!!! I was appalled last year when the Cleveland Police Dept discovered the bodies of no fewer than 11 African American women in the home of a man named Anthony Sewell. All of these women had gone missing from the same side of town in a span of 2 years and the police had found nothing alarming about this "coincidence" to encourage further investigation. I can't help but wonder if authorities had taken the fourth or even fifth disappearance seriously, might not the lives of seven women have been saved?

  4. Tina Miranda says:

    What an outrage, for women, for women of color and for her family! People don't just disappear someone knows something!

  5. In following the Barnes case, I have been enlightened about the huge number of people who disappear every year. I fear the worst for this child and hope that the person or persons responsible for taking her will be caught before they harm anyone else. Thank you for keeping Phylicia and other "missings" in our consciousness.

  6. i do remember seeing a special on her when she disappeared but saddened that they have not found her. she isa beautiful young woman whoever has her needs to bring her back to her family.

  7. I think that goes to AA not having a real media representation. We don't own anything but Cadillacs and Nikes. Let's put our money together and buy a news outlet. Oh and O didn't buy OWN for us.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. My group takes this issue seriously! Domestic Violence is one of the causes that I champion loudly. Memphis Paranormal Investigations

  9. A huge part of why Phylicia’s story isn’t getting the media attention is because of the family. The sister who’s apartment Phylicia was last seen in, has moved and changed her number. Her mother moved and when interviewed appeared more upset that her daughter had drank, etc. than the whereabouts of Phylicia.
    Now, I’m not saying that they aren’t hurting. But I am saying that there is more that they can do. Now is not the time to hold grudges against the father of your missing child. Put the petty “hurt feelings” away and join together to find your kid. The most important thing is finding your child, not how hurt you are by being dissed in the past. GROW UP!!!!!!! Get your kids name out there. Put some pressure on the ex-boyfriend, put some pressure on anyone who was in that building that day. Put some pressure on the police to talk to people they’ve already talked to. Aliens didn’t take her, so obviously someone knows something. Keep on getting her name out there. Do an interview that doesn’t talk about the poor teenage decisions she made while on vacation, but talk about who last saw her, where her cell phone was last used and things like that. If you want results, you have to piss some people off first.

  10. @Bbksmum I disagree with you. As a mother of two girls I promise you when I got through ALL OF THEM WOULD NEED LAWYERS!! H@ yes I would hold a grudge my INTEL daugh disappeared dealing with a hood rat who LIED and my ex is defending her. No one wants to believe the step and ex boyfriend had something to do with this but lets be honest here. Lets say the sis (and ex) did know something that could send her to jail with the boyfriend? My money says she would move, change her number and wouldn't talk. GET REAL how many times has the killer/guilty party BEEN ON THE NEWS AS PART OF SEARCH???? I NEVER sent my girls to live with anyone I didn't PERSONALLY know and I travelled in the military with my girls!!! I'd rather they find her tied in a basement somewhere like the white girl who's fam was chopped up than dead!!

    • The sister didn’t move of her own choice. The apartment complex evicted her. They also gave her phone number to anyone that went into the rental office enquiring. Let’s be real. Both sisters time lines do not add up. There are holes in their story. There is an interview on Peas and the Pod blog site. The sisters are withholding info and the father is protecting them. Phylicia actually found her sisters and dad on Facebook 3 years ago. While her mother may not have expressed herself well on interviews it’s understandable. She is grief-stricken and distraught. She focused on the alcohol and men in thevapartment because the half sister lied when she begged Phylicia’s mom to let her come visit. Shevsaid the boyfriend moved out and did not have a key, there would be no alcohol ect. This half sister is 27 damn years old. She lured her half sister to Baltimore for whatever reason and whether this was an accident or intentional those women know something.

  11. Does anyone besides me think that maybe shes being held hostage at someones house or either she was transported back to north carolina? I say this because its been way too long with no result and common sense who ever was the cause of her disappearence knew that officials would look for her in baltimore sense baltimore it was the last place she was seen so they took her back to north carolina to throw police officials off track. My prayers go out to her family. I could only imagine what they are going through.

  12. I would suggest that they use a pshyic, its a little "uncatholic" but it might shine some light. I am a catholic myself so I would speak to a priest before (if they would) do this. I saw a tv show how they couldn not find a girl and the pshyic led them to her. I hope this helps.

  13. Definitely consider that which you stated. Your favorite justification seemed to be at the internet the simplest factor to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people consider worries that they plainly don’t realize about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the top and also outlined out the entire thing without having side effect , other people can take a signal. Will probably be again to get more. Thanks

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