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The LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Walking in Memphis, Part 3 – Ebony Whitaker

Then I’m walking in Memphis

Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale

Walking in Memphis

But do I really feel the way I feel

~ Marc Cohn, “Walking in Memphis”

On my next-to-last day in Memphis, before flying home, I finally made my pilgrimage. No, not to Graceland. I never really had any desire to go there. Besides, I knew that when I got home, most of the people who knew me and knew about my trip wouldn’t ask if I went to Graceland. At least not first. If I was going to visit anywhere in Memphis, there was one place I had to visit first. So when I co-worker told me that several people were planning to visit the National Civil Rights Museum — which includes and incorporates the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated — I knew that was where I was going to go, if I went anywhere else in Memphis.

I remember walking through the exhibit, and finally making my way to the King Room, looking through the glass that protected and preserved it, and then walking through an adjacent room and stepping out onto the balcony next to where King was shot. I remember looking across the street and seeing the window of the boarding house where James Earl Ray made the fatal shot. I remember walking through a tunnel, across the street to that house, and looking into the room from which he made the shot. And I remember walking past James Earl Ray’s car when we finally left the museum.

I stepped out into the sunlight, at last, with the rest of the group —all of us blinking our eyes, trying to get used to the light, grateful for the awkward silence, yet feeling the need to fill it with something profound or moving, but coming up short. The thought I kept to myself was how strange it was that in Memphis people ended up visiting a monument to someone’s death, both named — at birth or at birth as a celebrity — “King.” I didn’t think about then, what comes to mind now: how many deaths will receive no monument in Memphis, or be remembered even a year later.

Two men died in Memphis; famous men who inspired countless people who still make pilgrimages to the places where they died. When they died, both at a moment of transition in fame and focus, they were loved by many, and still are today.
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Ebony Whitaker was loved too. But it’s not likely any monument or memorial will be built near Lamar and Old Getwell, where she was last seen walking, or the lot near Whitebrook Plaza, where she was found shot to death, just steps from a daycare center. There will be no tomb that anyone will visit, except the family and friends who loved her. And in the area where her body was found, nothing has been built, but two of the hotels in the area — where many sex workers, transgender and non-, worked — have been torn down, partly in response to Whitaker’s murder but also as an attempt by the city to discourage the sex trade that thrived in the area. Perhaps a better idea would be to address the issues that make sex work one of few options for some transgender women.

Friends say Whitaker worked as a transgendered prostitute. He was dressed as a woman when he was found shot to death Tuesday near Lamar and Old Getwell. Police believe Whitaker had been working in the area Monday night.

Local activists say they would not be at all surprised if Whitaker was targeted because he was transgendered.

“They’re often the people most likely to be fired from a job, kicked out of their homes, ostracized by their churches…so, it’s really hard for them,” said Will Matts of the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center.

So far, there are no suspects in Whitaker’s murder.

No suspects who can be named, handcuffed, dragged before cameras and before a judge, and locked away, so that we can feel justice was done for what happened to Ebony Whitaker. But that does not mean there are no suspects, no one with some clear degree of responsibility.

Ebony Whitaker, a 20-year-old African American transgender woman was murdered by an unknown assailant in Memphis, TN, and was found dead on July 1, 2008.

The Background


Born Rodney, Whitaker’s family suspected that she was gay, but were not aware that she was transgender.1)

Detectives said Whitaker was last seen walking in the area of Lamar and Old Getwell in Memphis, around 4:00 a.m. on July 1.2) Whitaker’s friends said she earned money doing sex-work.3), since the age of 16. 4)She had at least one arrest for prostitution on record.5)

The Murder

Whitaker’s body was found by a daycare worker, just after 7:15 a.m. on July 1, 2008 near a daycare center, an abandoned apartment complext, and a strip club. Whitaker was found wearing women’s clothing, in the 3200 block of Whitebrook Plaza in southeast Memphis.

Detectives were back in the are several hours later, questioning people at the nearby strip club and clearing the area.6) Neighborhood resident Eugene Royal claimed to have heard a gunshot early in the morning. People who worked nearby said that the area was a common spot for sex-workers.7)

Members of Whitaker’s family said they suspected Whitaker was killed by a customer who became angry and violent upon learning that she was transgender.8)

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Whitaker’s death, on the heels of the videotaped police beating of transgender woman Duanna Johnson, and the murder of Tiffany Berry, attended the Memphis City Council meeting to show concern for the recent string of crimes against transgender women in the Memphis area, and to demand action.

As of July 4, 2008, police had no one in custody for Whitaker’s murder. Whitaker’s funeral was held on July 7, 2008.9)

Following Whitaker’s murder, a judge ordered four motels in the area where her body was discovered closed following an undercover police investigation. Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin made the announcement, calling the area “the most active prostitution location in the city.” Godwin said police had been called to the four hotels hundreds of times, and said that Whitaker’s murder was related to the sex trade around the hotels.10)

[Photo via bchashg7@flickr]