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Johnnie Mae Warren was still alive when the police arrived. For hours, her boss, 38-year-old Dr. Russell Carrington Jr., held her hostage in his office with Mrs. Elsie Johnson and a police officer. A month earlier, 23-year-old Johnnie Mae had told Russell that she didn’t want him anymore, and he tried everything he knew to get her back. He had gone around and told everybody that they were engaged; it would have been embarrassing to admit that the beautiful Johnnie Mae no longer wanted him. She was young and sweet. A good Christian woman who could raise a family right. He thought she had no good reason to leave him, and he figured he would show her more reasons to stay, so that day, January 17, 1972, Russell brought his gun to his office, where he worked as a dentist. He gave her two options: stay with him or die.

While Johnnie Mae was inside, more than 100 people stood outside the Garwyn Medical Center where she was being held hostage. At that moment, Johnnie Mae might have thought of her daughter and family back in Chester, South Carolina. Three years earlier, she had traveled to Baltimore to start a new life, joining thousands of Black Americans who left the South in pursuit of better economic opportunities in the mid-twentieth century. She probably figured she could make more money in Baltimore as a receptionist-secretary than in South Carolina. Perhaps she wondered if her sister Marjorie may be in the curious crowd anxiously awaiting their release. More than 100 people were outside the Garwyn Medical Center. Several police officers, Russell’s colleagues, two of his ex-girlfriends, and Russell’s father, Russell Carrington Sr., pleaded with him through the small crack underneath the door to let the hostages go. Russell Sr. said that he had never seen his son “act so wild.” Russell urged the police and others to leave them alone, attempting to reassure them with: “It’s only a domestic affair between me and my girlfriend.” When Russell agreed to send the gun out with his ex-girlfriend Miss King, the police left the office, assured that Johnnie Mae and Elsie would walk out with them. Elsie left, but the gun was not given to her or anyone.

After a few more failed negotiation attempts involving Russell’s colleagues and exes, Johnnie Mae and Miss King attempted to escape the office, running into the hallway. An irate Russell pursued them, firing at Johnnie Mae. He shot her three times before being wounded fatally in the back by an officer. Staggering, Russell followed her into a room, closed the door, and fired several shots. When the police entered the room, they found Russell facedown with one bullet wound in his back and Johnnie Mae with several bullet wounds. Both were pronounced dead later at the hospital. His murder was marked an injustice. Johnnie Mae’s last recorded words, according to a newspaper, were “Please don’t kill me.”

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Files in a archive.

Dr. Russell Carrington Jr. was described as a dapper, short man with a bachelor’s degree from Morgan State College, an MS and a PhD from the University of Kansas, and a DDS from Western Reserve University. He was among the charter members of the over $500,000 Garwyn Medical Center, the first private medical facility financed by Black people in Baltimore city. In 1966, he had gained notoriety for winning a grant for $83,000 from the US Public Health Service. By all public accounts, he and his business were doing well, despite having been charged with $102,083 worth of Medicaid fraud in 1969. His private life seemed to be upstanding, but his death revealed his “playboy” ways to the public.

Police had no idea that Dr. Russell Carrington Jr. was married until his wife, Mrs. Barbara Carrington, called the police station demanding answers in the days following his murder. In her message, she claimed that they were not separated, and she was angry that she had not been notified of her husband’s passing. Russell’s father admitted that he had no knowledge of their separation, but he did know that Russell had several girlfriends throughout their 14-year marriage, remarking, “That’s just the way he was.” (He also admitted that Russell Jr. was a lot like him.) Others reported that Barbara and Russell had been separated for years, and she alone cared for their three children. Russell’s oldest son from a previous marriage, 18-year-old Russell H. Carrington III, sympathized with his deceased father, saying, “I wouldn’t want anybody to make a fool of me either. They (women) take all your money from you. If it had been me, I would have done the same thing.” Even Russell III believed Russell Jr. was a good father and a good man, though Russell Jr. had abandoned him when he married his second wife.

Russell’s funeral at Metropolitan Methodist Church was well-attended. Among the Black elite in Baltimore, the Carringtons had many family and friends who came to pay their respects. Russell’s colleagues remembered him as a bright, sensitive man who was very concerned with how others perceived him. They believed his murder of Johnnie Mae was an unfortunate consequence of his not being able to deal with the stress of the Medicaid fraud trial. Addressing the funeral attendees, Rev. Ernest P. Clark gave this eulogy:

As you think of our friend who has gone away, you can say he was a victim of the neurosis of our time. He was no worse [than] the worst of us, and no better [than] the best of us. Please don’t forget we are not gods to judge this man. He sought out what we all seek out, self power. He sought prestige. He sought possession, but what man in this congregation doesn’t? He provided a beautiful home on Arrowhead Rd. for his children. There are a lot of thing[s] he was not, but now I’m talking about the things he was. Russell left a legacy to you in the form of a lesson. His life, his mistake, his achievement and his downfall can be read in the book of life, the Bible. [Rev. Clark turns to Russell’s colleagues.] Brothers of the professional life, you can’t win it all. It all wasn’t meant for you to have. He did what he did because he was afraid of not trying enough, and it turned on him, you need God. (emphasis added)

Johnnie Mae Warren was much harder to uncover in the archive. In addition to the constellation of stories that placed her at the center of Dr. Russell Carrington Jr.’s “achievement and downfall,” I only found the record of her death. Though Carrington was quoted numerous times over the course of several articles, the only record of her voice was the plea overhead by Elsie Johnson on the day of the murder: “Please don’t kill me.” Baltimore Afro-American reporters attended Johnnie Mae’s funeral at Second Wilson Baptist Church in Chester, South Carolina, where they witnessed about 500 people come to pay respects to the “beauteous” woman whose “tragic death marks the end of the story of a pretty small town girl who usually only in books goes to a big city and returns a corpse.” Her funeral and wake were the largest in memory in the town, with over 200 cars lined up outside the church service. Rev. J. A. McClurkin eulogized Johnnie Mae as “one of a beautiful bouquet of flowers. . . . God always picks the best of the flowers first.”

In photos from a few of the articles, we witness Johnnie Mae’s beauty. The images show a dark-skinned Black woman with curled, relaxed hair, large eyes, and pearl earrings. She was the object of many people’s affections, remembered as a Christian woman who sang in the junior choir and served as secretary for the choir and Sunday school. She graduated from Finley Senior High School and attended Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina. Coming to Baltimore to advance her career as a secretary-receptionist, she had only been working for Dr. Carrington at Garwyn Medical for a year before she was murdered. In addition to her three-year-old daughter, Dia Danielle, Warren left behind many family and friends.

Though the story of Carrington’s hostage-murder had been framed as a tale of two lovers unable to reconcile, and who thus, met a violent end—a story in the Book of Life —Johnnie Mae’s older sister and roommate, Marjorie, stated that Johnnie Mae was never serious with Russell. Marjorie denied that they were engaged, saying, “She knew Dr. Carrington ever since she started working at Garwyn, but he was never her steady boyfriend. They only dated.” Though the contradictory stories given by the survivors of this murder may confound some, I am inclined to believe that Johnnie Mae did not have any intentions of becoming Russell’s third wife. I would argue that what Johnnie Mae experienced in the wake of her death is typical of victims of deadly intimate partner violence: Their life and death become overshadowed by concerns about their murderer. By virtue of Russell’s status and position within Black Baltimore, it did not matter whether she was actually engaged to him or not. His ascension to “self power”(over)determined how others would see his death and hers.

The silencing of Johnnie Mae in the record—namely, by the way she is represented as the beautiful, unfateful victim—doesn’t allow her to escape blame after death. Her Blackness and her beauty actually prevent her from being blameless. Though desirability is often believed to be an insulating factor from harm, Johnnie Mae’s beauty became enfolded into the reasoning for her death. She was Black and beautiful and young and woman—of course he wanted to possess her. (If we recall her eulogy, even God re-possessed her because of her beauty). In the days after her murder, Russell’s colleagues speculated that she may have survived if she had not tried to save her own life. They also conjectured that if she had not broken up with him, she would not have died. Though the person primarily responsible for the final terrorizing moments of her life and her brutal execution knowingly committed those atrocities, he escaped blame through Rev. Clark’s call for righteous nonjudgment. The only thing that would have “saved” Johnnie Mae was to assign herself as accessory and assistant to Russell’s ascension to “self power.” In death, Johnnie Mae finds herself in the same position as many victims of dating violence. She was to blame for her own captivity.

Johnnie Mae was not the only Black woman I stumbled upon in the Afro-American Newspaper archive who would lose their life to self-power. I encountered these women only through their archival fragments: the mention of their name, youth, and sometimes beauty; the last moments of their lives narrated as quarrels between two equals. Those stories almost always featured “ideal husbands” who committed understandable, justified murders. Why wouldn’t these men be jealous enough to kill? They were going to lose a possession, the ultimate patriarchal sin. Death was the only way to ensure these unruly, wayward Black women did not escape, speak, or truly live. But that’s exactly what I hoped to find in the archive: their shadowy ways of resistance, the words they uttered in the void. What else did these women say? As I turned over the fragments of their lives, searching for them between the lines of the text, I wondered: What happens when what remains are one’s dying words? What does that mean for the Black woman and Black child in particular?

I needed these stories to contextualize what I had observed in my own ethnographic study: Black women and children routinely being regarded as collateral to Black men’s self-ascension. I wondered if the move to minimize their value, while emphasizing (and often, exaggerating) the impact these Black men had on their communities and families, was simply a contemporary phenomenon. As I poured over the scores of stories about domestic violence, I discovered that this phenomenon had deep historical roots. Black women’s silence formed the boundaries of what could and could not be said or done—for, to paraphrase Patrice Douglass, we know a woman is Black by what can be done to her.

In 1984, critical theorist Hortense Spillers gave a keynote at Barnard College on Black women’s sexuality where she discusses the “discursive and iconic fortunes and misfortunes, abuses, or plain absences that tend to travel from one generation of kinswomen to another.”  These inheritances are marked by Black women’s absent presence in the archive and public discourse, where they live as “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb.” When we encounter Black women, we most often find their lives refracted through someone else. Their own voices—literal and symbolic—silenced in service of a greater good. Once marked simply as ditto ditto,they transformed into tragically (and justifiably) killed women, their silence in the archival record an inheritance of their ancestors’ cargo status—the difference being mostly in name, as they were still (dis)possessed.

As a Black woman anthropologist who writes about and advocates against sexual and domestic violence, I honor the call of Black feminist scholars and writers to speak into the void left behind by centuries of erasure and silence through my own writing practice. My aim is to tend to the gaps, crevices, and pauses, particularly around the affect and emotion these women showed. Following the work of Hortense Spillers, Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Sharon Holland, I fashion my own Black feminist ethnographic care practice to speak back to the silence in a way that does not overexpose the Black woman to violation even as she meets a violent end.

This experimental practice is not easy, as it requires the writer to have a particular kind of empathy for Black women, who are readily discarded and misrecognized by society both in life and death. To tell their stories in ways that do not deny the complexity of their living nor the conditions of their death. Writing about Black women requires an attunement to spaces in between the Black and the woman, the “victim” of violence and the criminalized, and life and death. The writer must pen each word with a refusal to resort to appeals about Black women’s innate “humanity”—one that is always already denied through her daily experiences of violence.

In this in-between space, I humble myself, remaining still and steadfast in my own writerly resistance. There, I find enough room to be with the dead, the ancestors who are gone too soon. There, I listen, knowing that the silence is anything but empty.


Brendane A. Tynes

Brendane A. Tynes (she/her) is a queer Black feminist scholar, cultural anthropologist, and storyteller from Columbia, South Carolina. She earned her PhD in anthropology at Columbia University. Her research interests include Black feminist anthropology, Black feminist critical theory, gendered violence, abolition, Black political movements, memory, and affect studies.

Cite as

brendane-a-tynes. 2024. “How Do We Listen to the Dead?.” Anthropology News website, January 11, 2024.