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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

A visit to Ferguson, U.S.A.

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I’m a mother, a writer, and a resident of Indiana. I visited Ferguson, Mo., the weekend of Nov. 21. I am white, and I work at an African-American publication, The Indianapolis Recorder. My boss asked me to write this column. Here it is.

Michael Brown’s grave — Normandy, Mo. November 2014

I spent part of my son’s 18th birthday at Michael Brown’s grave. The child of Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. is buried in historic St. Peter’s Cemetery in Normandy, Mo.

Although Michael Brown had been entombed in a vault and buried on Aug. 25, on that November day, I found the Earth still raw and brown, marked only by a spray of plastic flowers. 

During the Nov. 21 weekend, the nation’s attention remained on downtown Ferguson, where Brown, 18, died in the street in August after being shot multiple times by police officer Darren Wilson.

The cemetery staff were not on site that weekend, but guided by an excellent article by journalist Moni Basu, it wasn’t difficult to find Brown’s grave in Section 10, Block F, Lot 12, Grave 4.

Prior to the death of Michael Brown, most Americans had likely never heard of Ferguson. Today, this small town has arguably become one of the most photographed and videotaped places on Earth.

I don’t know what happened between Wilson, a white police officer, and Brown, an African-American teenager, other than it took mere minutes and ended with the teen lying lifeless on the street.

Standing in the cemetery, I could imagine his parents’ grief.

The loss of his generation, and the next. Holiday gatherings without his presence, each year stretching ahead for his parents to now commemorate not only the date of their child’s birth, but his death. 

The loss of one’s parents and elders is a bitter medicine that we all must learn to take. But the loss of a child is unnatural.

I was saddened that there was no marker on Michael Brown’s grave. In my Indiana family, the markers for our dead are set out quickly in the cemetery. It is our way. 

I wondered if Michael Brown’s family was concerned that their son’s tombstone might be treated with disrespect, or if finances were an issue. Who saves to bury a healthy child? On the following Monday, I called the cemetery and asked. A facility staff member patiently explained that at St. Peter’s, headstones are typically placed after six months. “We have to allow the ground to settle,” he said. 

Chicago 1995

Allow me to speak of another mother who lost her son in the month of August. In 1995 in Chicago, I met Mamie Till-Mobley.

Stunned by actually meeting one of the most famous founders of the American Civil Rights Movement, I found little to say, and she evidently interpreted my demeanor as that of someone who had never heard her son’s story.

She stopped in her tracks to educate me. She told me her son’s name was Emmett Till, and that he had been kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi 40 years earlier, in 1955. “They said my son whistled at a white woman,” said Till-Mobley. “But you see, my son was shy. My son had a speech impediment, and whistled when he talked.” I nodded. She told me that despite the decomposition of her son’s body, she would not allow the authorities to bury him in the South, but brought him back to Chicago. The viewing was open casket. She explained that she wanted the world to see what had been done to her child. 

St. Charles, Mo. November 2014

Listening to the radio as I drove around St. Charles, I heard talk show hosts discussing a run on gun shops, and ads for home-security systems. Later, I sat with an elderly white woman as she cried and talked about race riots. “They say that a Black mob is going to come across the bridge,” she said. “What Black mob? What bridge?” I asked. She told me she was afraid that any white person could be targeted. Why? “Do you think I should buy a gun? But I don’t know how to fire a gun.” “If you don’t know how to handle a gun, I don’t think it would be wise to buy a gun,” I said. “I have a Black friend, I thought,” she said. “She is so classy and smart. But my friends are calling and they say we can never really be friends with them.” “Your friends don’t live here, they don’t know you and your friend. It’s going to be alright,” I said. 

She cried. “Do you really think so? Do you really believe that? But it’s a state of emergency!” 

Ferguson, Mo. November 2014

Driving into Ferguson, I didn’t know what to expect. Would demonstrators be out with bullhorns? Police with tear gas? Would the KKK make good on their threats to march? Would the grand jury’s decision be announced?

Instead, I found pleasant streets lined with well-maintained homes. A thoroughfare with chain restaurants and stores leading to the older historic heart of downtown. Yes, a handful of businesses were then boarded in Ferguson. Most proudly displayed gleaming glass storefronts, many with an “I love Ferguson” sign.

On the street, a couple walked their dog. Parents pushed a child in a stroller. Kids rode bikes, laughing and calling out to one another.

At the dry cleaners, a white male customer held the door for a Black male customer, who then held the door for me. The dry cleaner searched for the suit, and teased his clients for taking so long to pick it up.

Almost every business I saw was open. I decided I would go to the Ferguson Police Department and identify myself as a journalist for the Indianapolis Recorder.

The Fire Department was open, with people going in and out, but the police department was barricaded, and I did not approach.

I drank coffee in Ferguson, shopped in Ferguson, walked around Ferguson, and was treated kindly by everyone I met. Then I did what comes naturally, and went to the library. Once again, news crews and cameras were absent, but I did find an African-American grandfather helping his grandson with homework, two teenage girls giggling, and an older white librarian enthusiastically telling an older Black female patron about the library’s Thanksgiving book swap. The library’s sign was in the foyer: “STAY STRONG FERGUSON. WE ARE FAMILY.”

The last person I met in Ferguson was Steve Moore, owner of Celebrity Soul Food Restaurant. He gave me a piece of chocolate cake, and urged me to tell everyone that Ferguson was open for business.

* * *

The Sunday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch banner headline read: MORE WORK TO DO. Citing unnamed sources, Christine Byers reported that there would be no announcement that weekend in Clayton from the St. Louis County Grand Jury.

A white homeowner in Ferguson opened his door at my knock and gave me permission to photograph his green wreath in the shape of a peace symbol. But he politely declined to be interviewed, citing a bad experience with CNN.

* * *

I did not meet a single person, white or Black, in St. Louis, St. Charles, or Ferguson who thought Darren Wilson would be indicted. Every person I met said they were worried that buildings would burn. They were proved correct the evening of Nov. 24. As if filming a scripted reality show, television news crews made the announcement that Wilson was not indicted, and businesses burned.

Some in Indy say, “we are not a Ferguson,” but to me, Ferguson could be any small town in America.

I’m grateful to the hospitality, kindness and forbearance I was shown in Ferguson, and I am curious as to how its residents, Black and white, children and elderly, will fare in the future. Ferguson can rise like a phoenix from these ashes, and its name can be famed in the future, not as a byword, but as a blessing.

I can’t wait to go back to Ferguson.

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