NORMANDY • Michael Brown once told an uncle that the world would know his name one day, and he was right. Fifteen months after the black 18-year-old’s killing by a white Ferguson police officer made him a key figure in the debate over the treatment of blacks by U.S. law enforcement, though, Brown lies buried in relative obscurity.
Brown is among the most notable residents of 160-year-old St. Peter’s Cemetery, but there is no headstone marking his grave. Instead the burial plot — Section 10, Block F, Lot 12, Grave 4 — is visible only when gazing down at a concrete slab simply spray-painted in orange with “MB.”
Other matters have interfered in getting the permanent headstone in place, said Lyah LeFlore, vice president of the Michael O.D. Brown “We Love Our Sons & Daughters” Foundation that Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, helped launch in her late son’s memory. Among the distractions: the unfolding wrongful-death lawsuit that McSpadden and Brown’s father filed against Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb’s former police chief and Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown in a confrontation in August 2014.
The cost presumably isn’t an issue: In the weeks after Brown’s death, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised through fundraising websites to defray the family’s funeral, burial, travel and living expenses.
“Everybody has to do things kind of at their own pace,” LeFlore said of efforts to mark Brown’s grave. McSpadden “just wants something beautiful, poetic and wonderful in her son’s memory. It has just taken time.”
Brown was unarmed when he was killed by Wilson, who is white and who has since left the police force. Brown’s death revived long-simmering questions about the police treatment of minorities throughout the U.S. and energized the national Black Lives Matter movement.
The Justice Department later cleared Wilson, concluding that evidence backed his claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown tried to grab his gun during a struggle through the window of Wilson’s police vehicle, then came toward him threateningly after briefly running away.
Now, buried four miles from where he died, Brown is among an estimated 90,000 eternal residents of the 119-acre graveyard, superintendent Bill Baumgartner said. Among the more famous people buried there are Negro League baseball player James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, who was considered among the fastest players ever; and Wendell Oliver Pruitt, a pioneering black military pilot and Tuskegee Airman killed during a 1945 training exercise.
Baumgartner believes reporters make up most of those looking to see Brown’s final resting place — at least often enough that he has a ready stash of photocopied maps in the cemetery office, each with a black line directing them to Brown’s spot among a section of low, undistinctive headstones.
LeFlore said McSpadden worries that her son’s gravesite might be defaced. Last Christmas, an unidentified motorist — whether intentionally or accidentally — plowed through a shrine in the street where Brown fell dead. And last April, a tree planted in a Ferguson park in Brown’s memory was vandalized within hours and its dedication marker was stolen.
“You don’t want to think someone’s going to trash your child’s gravesite. That’s a real fear,” LeFlore said. “There are more supporters of the cause of making a change than there are those hate-mongerers. You just cannot stop what is inevitable.”