There was a certain something about Jimmy Lee Brown that would get Anna Kunkel’s attention as she looked over the men and women bunched together, seeking shelter, seeking comfort, seeking anything better than what they had.
They were Chicago’s homeless.
“He was a quiet man, but within that quietness, he had a wisdom about him,” Kunkel said by phone Monday from her offices at the Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago.
Kunkel said Brown had apparently moved from Clarksdale to St. Louis in the 1990s and then on to Chicago, where he became homeless and lost contact with his family and friends.
Kunkel’s group provides a number of services, including afterschool and daycare, but it was the men’s shelter where they first made contact with Brown. And while hesitant at first, Brown would eventually open up and become a friend of Kunkel.
“We were both Mississippians and that sparked our friendship,” she recalled of their conversations. “He had very fond memories of Clarksdale.”
Brown had started staying at the shelter during 2010 and he would later move into the ministry’s housing program in 2015.
The program works with those who have been homeless to offer a permanent, supportive housing environment. The participants, including Brown, would work with a case manager and set goals and be placed in an apartment in the surrounding neighborhood.
Brown took an active role in the program.
“He was very involved,” Kunkel said, as he became an active participant in the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and took part in marches, advocating for those on the very same streets where he used to call home. “He was a very involved individual.”
And that’s what sparked a concern from Kunkel when she didn’t see or hear from him around the first of March. During a wellness check on March 9, she would find Brown’s body in his apartment.
Jimmy Lee Brown was dead at the age of 53.
“His death was very shocking,” Kunkel said, noting that he’d had a normal doctor’s checkup a month before. The coroner’s office was unable to determine the exact date nor cause of death.
The search for family members to determine what to do with Brown’s remains would prove equally perplexing.
They had little success with posting a note on Brown’s Facebook page and, in a final bit of desperation, Kunkel sent an email to me a week ago asking for assistance. She had remembered a conversation she’d had with Brown where he mentioned a grandfather who worked “with the paper company” in Clarksdale for some 20-plus years and how he was proud of that.
Little did she, nor I, fully grasp how much Clarksdale folks, and Mississippians in general, look out for their own.
Within hours of placing the item on the Press Register’s Facebook page, the response was overwhelming. As of Monday, the post on Brown’s death had reached 7,020 Facebook users, generated 26 comments and been shared 89 times.
“For two months, we’d searched and searched, looking for family. We’d kind of lost hope,” Kunkel said. “The response was just amazing. To tell you the truth, it restored my faith in humanity. I wasn’t expecting this response at all.”
More importantly, the response provided a way for family to find Brown. Through messages, a cousin in Chicago was found and notified and was able to get Brown’s remains from the coroner’s office.
Dimitri “Dee Dee” Woods Crain now lives in Brandon, Miss., but her childhood years were spent with Brown as they were in the same grade from elementary to high school at Immaculate Conception in Clarksdale.
When classmate Rhonda Gooden sent her a message telling her about Brown’s death, Crain was distraught.
“I became so heart-broken. I had no idea that he was living the life of a homeless man or that he was living there,” she said. “I felt so bad that I didn’t know and I couldn’t help.”
She remembered Jimmy as being quiet, but she was able to get a smirk out of him and make him laugh.
“He was a quiet man. A good person. He didn’t say much, but he listened a lot,” she said.
Crain remembered that nearly every school day Brown’s father would be sitting in a car, always the first in line, to pick up his son after school.
She says the last time she saw Brown was at their graduation in 1983. It was a small graduating class, numbering only 16 students.
She had thought of him over the years and says his name would come up in the past two years at reunions of former Immaculate Conception students, but nobody knew what had become of him.
“I was brought to tears by the article because as a person I hadn’t kept in contact with my classmate,” she said. “Keep in contact. Communication is the open key to life. Let someone know how you’re doing.”
She took comfort in the fact that Brown had not died homeless on a cold Chicago street, but rather in his own apartment. But she said, “A person shouldn’t die alone or die without having a proper burial.”
That’s why she and other classmates quickly reached out to Kunkel, asking her how and what they could do to help their forgotten friend.
“I was absolutely blown away by the generosity,” Kunkel said.
She remembered the memorial service for Brown where the minister relayed a story exemplifying who Brown was. It was during one of their group sessions where the question “Who is your enemy and how do you respond to them?” was asked.
Each of the participants took their turn, answering the question, but Brown remained silent, deep in thought. Curious about his non-answer, the group leader asked Brown why he refused to answer the question.
“ I really try to live in a way where I don’t have enemies.”
And, according to Kunkel, “That sounded very much like him.”
A church Brown attended planted a tree in his memory at the office for Breakthrough Urban Ministries. It will be a place where family members and friends can go to remember and reflect upon what Brown meant to them.
And while the tree grows strong in Chicago, Brown’s thoughts never strayed far from his hometown, Kunkel said.
“In his last few months, he talked of how that was a dream of his... to be back, closer to that area.”
And, upon reflection, perhaps Jimmy Lee Brown did achieve that final wish.
For it’s his life story and death that stirs us to reach out and embrace friends and family.
It’s togetherness. It’s cohesion.
It should be us.
Michael Banks is publisher of The Clarksdale Press Register. He can be reached at 662-627-2201, ext. 2229 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @MichaelBanksMS.