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A critical response to violence against transgender communities across Philadelphia

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Nizah Morris: A Portrait in Fragments

In response to her murder, we are sharing experiences and traces from her life to promote solidarity and understanding

Fields of Knowledge
  • Memory
  • Public culture
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Penn Social Policy & Practice

Contributors

Beverly Brooks, Shannon Ericson, Kenneth Galazka, Trish Johnston, Camille Smalls, Jingxuan (Vesper) Yang, Lila Scott, with Timothy Cwiek and Asa Khalif

Acknowledgments

This portrait, compiled by University of Pennsylvania graduate students in the School of Social Policy & Practice and GSE, seeks to disseminate information about their lives and experiences as transgender women of color.

Opens to public

12/22/2002

On the web

Associated online resources:

• Cold Case: Who Killed Nizah Morris?
• Planetransgender Blogspot
• Local Community Explores Cold Case
• Philadelphia LGBT community asks what - or who - killed Nizah Morris
• Cops Covered Up Trans Woman's Mysterious Death
• Whose Lives Matter?: Trans Women of Color and Police Violence
• Mother of slain transsexual sues Nizah Morris.
• Justice for Nizah Morris
• Tim Cwiek receiving national award for Nizah Morris coverage
• Morris Home First Ever US In Patient Facility For Trans by Trans
• Questions linger

While critical details of Nizah Morris's death remain a mystery, there is no question of the impact her life and legacy have had on the city of Philadelphia, particularly for the trans* community. In the years preceding her death, Nizah worked in childcare, performed in regular shows at Bob and Barbara's Lounge, and was considered a dear friend by many.

When asked how he would describe her, Asa Khalif, a Philadelphia based activist, and longtime friend of Nizah Morris, notes that she was a loving and kind person, who was the life of the party. "She was upbeat whenever you saw her, and you could always get a wisecrack out of her." When asked about her performances at Bob and Barbara's, Khalif said he had only seen her perform twice, but both times she was "electrifying." "She was always in a good place when she was performing, and she knew how to get the crowd going."

According to Khalif, Nizah was "at her peak" when she died. He recalled that, toward the end of her life, she had become more political, more conscious. "She was more at peace," he noted, "her whole mentality changed...At one point in her life, she hadn't been able to have a good time because of the demons she was battling." Asa attributes a lot of this to her becoming a Buddhist later in her life. "She was comfortable in her own skin... Eventually she was able to live in the moment more," he reflected.

He does recall that toward the end of her life, she wanted the traditional American life - the house with the white picket fence, the husband, the dog. She used to joke about it, but she seemed to think it was unattainable for her. Eventually, however, it started to seem like something that could really happen for her. "I think at one point in her life she may have felt like many other transwomen felt- that she was unlovable," he said, "But I think she learned how to love herself first. In the period before she died, she was having a love affair with herself for the first time."

Read the full interview

read more

Her Death

"[Nizah's] death motivates us to keep moving forward and affect change where change needs to happen." -- Deja Alvarez, Executive Director of Divine Light LGBTQ Wellness Center and friend

Nizah Morris was picked up in front of the Key West Bar near 13th and Walnut in Philadelphia around 2 a.m. on December 22, 2002, having been offered a "courtesy ride" by a Philadelphia police officer. Though Morris lived at 50th and Walnut, Morris was found lying on the sidewalk at 16th and Walnut, bleeding from the right side of her forehead. A call was placed to 911, and a 9th District officer arrived at the scene, but did not call a supervisor or treat the event as a crime; he even put a jacket over her face while she was still alive. Morris was transported to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in critical condition, and died two days after of a subdural hematoma, the result of traumatic blows to her head. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Ever since Nizah Morris died, activists in Philadelphia have questioned the police department's handling of the case, and the inability to get straight answers regarding the crime has led local groups and organizations launching their own investigations, some of which continue 14 years later. Media coverage of her murder and legal documents concerning the circumstances surrounding her death are downloadable below.

Download Files

Her Legacy

"There are people who live a life that starts a revolution...Nizah's death was a revolution. This woman has carried the lives of trans* people on her back, and look at the fruit that has blossomed from her existence." -- Samantha Jo Dato, Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference Coordinator and friend

On November 20, 2003, thousands of supporters attended an estimated 100 gatherings in five countries to honor the transgendered people killed that year, and among those remembered was Nizah Morris.

In 2011, the first residential recovery house that supports transgender/gender variant individuals opened in Philadelphia. Named after Nizah Morris, Morris Home provides a safe, recovery-oriented environment for individuals of diverse gender identities and presentations who may be coming from "the streets" and/or from shelter programs and is the subject of Sadé Ali's memoir Shut the Door & Lock it Tight: The Creation of Morris Home, downloadable below.

On December 20, 2013, Police Directive 152 was enacted, which is also downloadable below. It explicitly requires all Philadelphia Police Department employees to treat the members of the trans* community with respect, dignity, and courtesy within the PPD's continued commitment to safeguarding all Philadelphia citizens. These guidelines and policies include using correct pronouns, titles of respect, and names; prohibits derogatory remarks; and outlines procedures and respectful language for all interactions with trans* people.

On December 22, 2014, twelve years after her death, friends and activists organized a "Justice 4 Nizah March," where they walked from what was formerly the Key West Bar to the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia, where the participants left candles and flowers as a reminder to the DA's office that justice is still sought in Nizah's name.

Download Files

Help us

Did you know Nizah Morris?

We are compiling a critical response to her death through personal recollections and experiences and seek your reflections. If you have anything you would like to contribute, please contact us through whatever means you find most appropriate.

Would you like to help in the collective effort to have the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office release crucial documents in Nizah Morris's case? Help us by filing a "Right to Know" request. Under the "Records Requested" section, enter Nizah Morris "Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Report" from December 22, 2002.