In Elizabeth City, two narratives compete to define Andrew Brown Jr.

·11 min read

It takes about 15 minutes to walk the span of Andrew Brown Jr.’s life: from the Debry public housing where he grew up to the corner where he died with a deputy sheriff’s bullet in the back of his head.

Elizabeth City is small enough that many recall Brown’s grandfather Miles, a shade-tree mechanic on weekends. They remember playing football after church on Sunday at the house on Peartree Road where Lydia Brown, his grandmother, still lives at 92.

So last week, when hundreds marched through those streets protesting Brown’s death, chanting “Say his name,” most anybody in earshot already knew it.

Andrew Brown Jr. grew up in this apartment at 1213 Shiloh Street in Elizabeth City, N.C. He lost his life less than a mile away on Perry Street at the hands of Pasquotank County deputies that were serving an arrest warrant
Andrew Brown Jr. grew up in this apartment at 1213 Shiloh Street in Elizabeth City, N.C. He lost his life less than a mile away on Perry Street at the hands of Pasquotank County deputies that were serving an arrest warrant

“I was born there,” said Elton Ferebee, his cousin. “All of us was born there. Just waking up, going outside, flipping on mattresses, playing basketball. Just don’t let your mama catch you outside with your school clothes on.”

At 42, Brown was added to the roll of unarmed Black people killed by police, his name now shouted in marches in Raleigh and Durham alongside George Floyd’s.

His death on April 21 drew international attention to Elizabeth City, coming just hours after jurors in Minneapolis convicted police officer Derek Chauvin of murder in Floyd’s death. By his funeral Monday, Brown’s face appeared on a half-dozen T-shirt designs.

Brown, known as Drew to his family and friends, had endured hardships familiar to many who came out of Debry. What made him stand out above his flaws and setbacks, those loved ones recall, was the strength and positivity he brought to a troubled life.

“He got a lot of bad cards,” Ferebee said. “But if you met him, you wouldn’t know it. He was funny. And humble. He really was the coolest cousin. If I saw him angry, he was supposed to be angry.”

Contrasting narratives

When Black men die in police shootings, their lives get described in two contrasting stories — one told by family and the other by law enforcement.

In Minneapolis, George Floyd was portrayed both as a family man and religious mentor fond of peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and as an ex-convict with fentanyl in his system on the day he died.

Similar narratives now compete to define Andrew Brown Jr.

On the morning of April 21, a street camera captured footage of sheriff’s deputies rolling to Brown’s house in a pickup, wearing tactical gear.

Neighbors reported hearing shots, then running down Perry Street to see Brown tearing across a vacant yard, spraying mud on his house as deputies fired into his fleeing car. A private autopsy showed a “kill shot” to the head, said family attorney Ben Crump. But body-cam and dashboard footage of the shooting have yet to be released, by a judge’s order.

The deputies’ search and arrest warrants said they were acting on a yearlong investigation that had produced evidence of Brown selling drugs multiple times, including methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

For Brown, such attention from law enforcement was nothing new.

Living in Debry, he caught his first charge, for trespassing, at age 16. He served his first stint in prison, for felony drug trafficking, at 20. Over the course of his life, Brown would serve 2,169 days in prison, roughly six years. He had been to prison three times before he was 30. Since 1996, hardly a year passed without a criminal conviction — 54 in all, according to court records.

Seven of the convictions were for drug-related felonies — mostly possessing and selling cocaine or marijuana.

All the rest were misdemeanors or traffic offenses — trespassing, gambling, “resisting a public officer,” speeding, driving without insurance.

For those who poured into Elizabeth City streets, and for the hundreds at his funeral, none of that justifies the level of police response to serve a routine warrant.

“Somebody said he had a record,” said the Rev. William Barber II, speaking at Brown’s funeral. “Well, Moses had a record, but he was a strong and courageous man. David had a record, but he was a strong and courageous man. He wasn’t some scared brother — not Andrew. He cared for his own, he found for his children ... He loved his people. Was he perfect? No. But just in case the world needs to know, would the perfect person please stand up so we can see you?”

No one stood.

“That’s what I thought,” Barber said.

‘He didn’t like guns’

Brown’s record shows several misdemeanor charges of “resisting a public officer,” but no accusations of assaulting an officer. Daniel Fogg, chief deputy of the Pasquotank County sheriff’s department, said a felony warrant being served on a suspect with a record indicates a high risk of danger.

But Brown’s history shows little that could be described as violent and nothing involving a gun.

“He didn’t like guns,” his cousin Ferebee said. “Like ever. Period. So when this happened, I knew he didn’t have a gun.”

Brown was raising 10 kids. His Facebook page shows the youngest getting ready to go to the zoo and the barbershop.

He had skipped around Elizabeth City for years in short-term housing, until about three months ago when his Aunt Sandra White said he asked her an important question: Do you know anybody who will rent me a house?

“I want to get my kids,” he told his aunt. “I need my kids.”

He’d been receiving mail at his grandmother’s house, and needed a permanent address. The house on Perry Street was supposed to be the linchpin to getting them back.

On the day Brown died, he’d lived in the Perry Street house only a few months.

“I’m going to miss seeing the children play in his yard,” said neighbor Katie Lamb-Harrell. “He would be out there with his children. I’m going to miss that because he was a family man.”

Brown brought challenges to fatherhood. He dropped out of high school in about the 10th grade, and an aunt told the Associated Press he had trouble reading.

But after his death, his former teacher Faye Oliver posted this tribute on the Horton’s Funeral Home website.

“I taught Andrew when he was in the 6th grade at Pasquotank Elementary School,” she wrote. “Andrew was a very smart and caring student. He loved making the students and me laugh. He had a Great Personality. Andrew always respected me and the other teachers. His family taught him that.”

Brown never married. As a person with a long criminal record, he had trouble getting or keeping jobs. His court files show he once worked in a Pizza Hut.

On top of this, trouble seemed to find him.

About six years ago, as Ferebee recalled it, a man pointed a gun at Brown on the street. Brown punched his assailant in the face — hard enough to knock him down. But as the man hit the ground, the gun fired accidentally, hitting Brown in the crotch. He had partial paralysis on one side as a result.

Family members said he kept upbeat regardless.

“He was a nice peaceful person, and I’m not saying that just to be saying it,” said his cousin, Joyce Ingram. “He didn’t bother nobody.”

‘A salvation’

The Debry public housing complex dates back decades, and in its early days, it represented a step up.

Eddie Davis, now 72 and living in Durham, grew up on Peartree Road, and he spent his Sundays playing in Miles and Lydia Brown’s yard. Those two were stalwarts in the community, he said, because they both had steady jobs. Kids flocked there because they might get a little extra to eat.

But many in Pasquotank County got by on share-cropping or low-pay farm work, and for Andrew Brown Sr., the ninth child, a house in Debry meant a fresh start in the city.

“Living in the projects allowed you to have what we called ‘heat on the wall,’” said Davis. “It’s not like you had to go out and start a fire in the morning. Lots of people where I grew up had outside bathrooms and hand pumps for water. Living in the projects was demeaning in the eyes of a lot of people, but in many cases, it was a salvation.”

On the day of Brown’s funeral, Debry looked neat and well-maintained, its identical brick duplexes stretching for blocks.

But when Andrew Brown Sr. lived there in the 1980s with his wife, Delphine, and their three children, it had a rougher edge.

It was, Ferebee recalled, a place where everybody looked out for everybody, but you still had to watch your back.

“You had older cats living there,” he said, “doing what they needed to survive. But they all knew our mothers. Everybody did.”

Andrew Brown’s parents

The stability that his grandparents provided eroded on the streets of Debry. Street trouble found his father first, then his mother.

In 1988, Andrew Brown Sr. went to jail for six months on misdemeanor charges of assault and communicating threats. His son was 9 at the time.

The elder Brown would serve many more prison terms throughout his son’s young life — once for assaulting a police officer — and the trouble would trickle down. Both Browns were behind bars in 1999.

But Delphine Brown suffered the cruelest fate.

By the mid-1990s, she and her husband had separated. Court records describe the couple as estranged.

In 1997, a passing motorist in Augusta, Georgia, discovered her decomposing body on the side of a road, according to an Augusta Chronicle article published at the time. Only 36, Delphine Brown was identified by her fingerprints. Pathologists thought she died after being thrown from a moving car.

Her name appeared in the Augusta newspaper in hopes of locating relatives; it took a while before the Browns learned of her death back in Elizabeth City.

Brown kept her memory close.

“RIP happy birth day mom,” he posted on Facebook for Valentine’s Day in 2014. “I just want u to no that I miss u and love u so much u got me tearing up but it’s ok I love u.”

And the pain of her death never left him: “I will never I mean never stop thinking bout you,” he wrote.

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia says the crime remains unsolved.

In 2005, Andrew Brown Sr. went to prison for the last time, this time on federal bank robbery charges. Jurors convicted him of stealing almost $9,000 from the First Citizens Bank in Elizabeth City, a crime he denied.

As his client braced for 20 years at Butner Correctional Institution, Cary attorney Andrew McCoppin wrote this letter to U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever III:

“Mr. Brown has had a hard life. As a youth, Mr. Brown’s older brothers regularly forced him to fight other children in the neighborhood for entertainment. This behavior caused him to be suspended or expelled from school on many occasions. His class ranking was 386 out of 395 graduates and his very limited academic abilities indicate he was socially promoted as a courtesy. Mr. Brown’s unimpressive work history appears to be the result of poor academic abilities and a family-instilled sense of violence. Mr. Brown indicates he has overcome his violent tendencies with age.

“After marrying and raising three children, Mr. Brown’s then-estranged wife was murdered under unusual circumstances. Mr. Brown reports that this event had a significant impact on him and his family.”

Andrew Brown Sr. died at Butner in 2016. Relatives said his son often sent him money.

A call for law enforcement video

For two weeks, Elizabeth City streets filled with protesters, many of them Brown’s relatives, and more of them friends.

They started downtown each evening at 5 p.m., marching from City Hall to his house on Perry Street, often blocking busy Ehringhaus Street or the U.S. 158 bridge over the Pasquotank River.

Unlike protests in Raleigh, they stayed peaceful, free from the broken windows and fires that followed some marches in Raleigh.

“We knew he was murdered,” said distant cousin Ladd Spruill. “Why would we want to tear up the town?”

As of Thursday, the family has seen only a 20-second clip of the deputies’ videos, and the city cried for transparency. In a city where so many know so many others, secrets and mysteries are not welcome.

But Barber, speaking at his funeral Monday, suggested some good might come from Brown’s death.

“Your Andrew is bringing the brothers together,” he said. “Andrew got Pookie and them in the street marching. Y’all hear what I’m saying? Andrew got Pookie and them talking about registering folk to vote.”

In this small North Carolina town, a man who would likely never appear on the television news has the world waiting for what comes next.

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