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WUWM's Teran Powell races on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Black trans women in Milwaukee honor memory of their sister Brazil Johnson

Vigil for Brazil Johnson
Teran Powell
Loved ones of Brazil Johnson celebrate her life with a vigil near where she was killed in Milwaukee.

A 28-year-old Black transgender woman named Brazil Johnson was recently killed in Milwaukee near West Garfield and North Teutonia avenues.

Violence against transgender people disproportionately affects trans people of color according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2021, the group reported nearly 60 deaths of transgender or gender non-conforming people, and majority were Black and Latinx transgender women.

This week, a few dozen of Johnson’s loved ones gathered where she was killed for a vigil. That included neighbors, friends and pastors. Her mom, Bernitha Gildart, shared a bit about her daughter: She loved playing video games. She was always joking around with her family. She loved to cook and do poetry. She liked playing card games. And her favorite song was Unbreak My Heart by Toni Braxton.

Johnson was a family-oriented person and it’s these qualities that Gildart said she will miss the most about her.

Gildart said it warmed her heart to see how many people came out in remembrance of her daughter.

"I know now that she was loved 'cause of the beautiful person that she was and I'm just happy. This was a great turn out, no violence so far, everything's been lovely. And I'm just so proud that she touched so many people," she said.

It began with a prayer from Ladi London who asked for joy and guidance during this tragic loss.

"Far too often our community experiences loss. Loss of family relationships, friendships, life opportunities and more importantly we lose the opportunity to live out our lives. On behalf of myself and the Black Rose Initiative and all the Black trans women in Milwaukee, we gather here to remember our sister, Brazil Johnson, as we bring much needed awareness to the impacts of violence against such a marginalized community as ours," she said.

Teran Powell
A vigil attendee rests where candles and stuffed animals have been laid in memory of Brazil Johnson.

London said when she saw the news about Johnson’s murder, she wanted to amplify her story so that it would not fall by the wayside like so many others.

"I wanted to also memorialize her in a way that felt right for our type of community. I didn't want it to look and feel like how other folks do their thing, you know what I mean? I wanted us to be unique and I wanted to include the [girl's] mother and I wanted her to be a part of — let her know that we care about your baby you know what I'm saying because that could have been any one of us at any given time and I'm always thinking about that about myself. Is that gonna be me next? Is that gon’ be my story?," she asked.

Not all the speakers knew Johnson personally but were there in solidarity.

Elle Halo, an LGBT+ advocate, said she was glad that people showed up to the vigil. But she also said she was angry about Johnson’s death and that more people aren’t showing up for Black trans women at the same rate Black trans women show up for everyone else.

WATCH: Milwaukee’s Elle Hill breaks down LGBTQ intersectionality on the anniversary of Stonewall

"We are human beings. We are proud women. We are strong women. We take care of people. We raise kids. We feed the community. We house people. We work. We sustain. We survive. And I'm angry. Why should we feel like our families and our communities, and our allies and so-called allies don't care about us? And pay attention to who's here and who's not," she said.

Halo said she’s charging people to fight for justice for Brazil Johnson and keep her name alive and treat one another with more compassion.

Johnson’s loved ones are demanding Milwaukee police find the person responsible for her death.

Milwaukee Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa held a press conference at City Hall Thursday, along with Milwaukee Police, urging the public to help police do that. She called Johnson’s death devastating and said we must do better to protect our trans neighbors.

Teran Powell
Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa at City Hall with Milwaukee Police urging the public to help find out what happened to Brazil Johnson.

Currently, there are no leads in the investigation into Johnson’s murder. But Zamarripa did mention a desire to collaborate with LGBT+ groups in Milwaukee to put together a reward for anyone who comes forward with information.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Peter Burgelis announced that the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and Cream City Foundation will together offer a $2,000 Crime Stoppers reward for anyone who provides information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the murder of Brazil Johnson.

Johnson’s friends and family say her name will never be forgotten.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below. 


Teran Powell joined WUWM in the fall of 2017 as the station’s very first Eric Von Fellow.
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