The Washington Post
Woman’s killing moves a family to act
Nearly a year after Moyonna Tillman was found shot and dying in her mother’s front yard, her relatives still question whether they could have done anything to save her.
“Every day,” uncle Robert Taylor said.
He twice had met the man police accused of killing her — her boyfriend. One of those times occurred a few months before his niece’s death when Taylor and his wife were on vacation and happened to end up in the same state the couple were visiting. Taylor let the two spend the night in his family’s hotel room, and he took them to dinner that night and made them breakfast in the morning.
“What did we miss?” he said on a recent night. “Did we miss signs or something?”
His sister, Ashleigh Taylor, joined us as we talked that night and reminded her brother that nothing was missed.
“There weren’t any glaring signs,” she said. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. We have all respectively dug into the backs of our minds to think: ‘Did she ever do anything? Did she ever say anything?’ And there was nothing.”
The questions that yank at her instead, she said, are: “What do you do when there are no signs? Could it have been avoided? And how?”
“I am angry,” she said. “We’re angry, because there was so much more to this life that she could have lived.”
Tillman’s family called her “Yonnie,” and in their memories of her, she is in constant motion. They describe her using words such as “go-getter,” “motivator” and “entrepreneur.” She was 8 when she started making candles and selling them during her father’s flag football games. She named her enterprise “Enjoy the Moment.”
“You can’t stress yourself out about things you cannot control,” she would say. “Just relax and enjoy the moment.”
At 24, Tillman was still selling candles, had plans to launch other businesses and had started
to break into modeling. She aspired to work as a model in Los Angeles.
But on Sept. 24, 2021, those plans came to a stop when gunshots were fired in front of her mother’s home in Prince George’s County. Police found Tillman shot several times. She was taken to a hospital but could not be saved.
Soon after, detectives obtained an arrest warrant for her 25-year-old boyfriend, James Darnell Kirkland. Days later, Kirkland returned to Tillman’s mother’s house and police say he fatally shot himself.
“It knocked us off our feet when the police said they were looking at her death as domestic violence,” Robert Taylor said. He described his niece as a caretaker, in ways that were visible and unseen. “Our mother is elderly, and Yonnie was the one who kept her light going. And what we found out from talking with the police was she was part of an organization that was supporting mothers who lost their kids to gun violence. We didn’t know Yonnie was doing that behind the scenes.”
In the months that followed Tillman’s death, her family members reeled and grieved. They also got to work. They started talking about how they might honor her and make sure that how she died wasn’t the end of her story.
On Sunday, a year after Tillman’s death, the family plans to announce that it has created a foundation in her name. The Moyonna C. Tillman Foundation will focus on mental health and domestic violence.
“We didn’t want her memory to be reduced to domestic violence,” Ashleigh Taylor said. “She was so much more than that. We didn’t want her to be just another statistic.”
The family plans to use the foundation to contribute to research, provide scholarships and offer support to domestic violence survivors. They hope to eventually run it out of dedicated building space, but for now, they are concentrating on raising funds and gathering ideas on how they can best use the foundation to help others.
The killing of Black women in the United States has been called “an unspoken epidemic” by advocates who have been pushing to bring more attention to the issue. In a previous column, I told you about Rosalind Page, a nurse and a Black mother of four daughters, who started tracking the killings of Black women and girls years ago. She found that too often their lives were being told through news briefs and their deaths being undercounted by federal agencies. By her count, 1,472 Black women and girls’ lives ended violently in 2021, an increase from the year before, which was an increase from the year before that.
Tillman was one of those deaths. Her face appeared on the Twitter page Black Femicide — America. That page and others are filled with the names and photos of women and girls who have been killed across the country.
Three hashtags that appear above Tillman’s photo: #Stopkillingblackwomen, #Stopkillingblackgirls and #domesticviolence.
Robert Taylor said one action the family is considering taking through the foundation would lead them back to Tillman’s high school. They hope to have discussions with students about domestic violence.
Taylor also has two daughters. He said that after his niece’s death he had conversations with them that were uncomfortable but needed.
He realized he would rather ask questions now than after it was too late.