DELLWOOD, Mo. » Amid the ashes and the shards of glass, Juanita Morris found remnants of her life before Nov. 24. There was the foam mannequin head that once showcased hats, now charred from the fire. A leopard-print blouse still clung to a melted hanger. And the sewing machine she used for alterations lay buried and crumpled in the wreckage of her store, Fashions R Boutique.
It has been more than two months since some protesters reacted violently to a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. Morris’ store was just blocks from where Brown died in nearby Ferguson. Like many of the shops along West Florissant Avenue, the boutique was burned after the grand jury announcement and remains a pile of rubble. Police are still investigating.
But as people here seek to rebuild their businesses and move this scarred region forward, some have started to consider the long-term significance of last year’s protests.
On Thursday morning, Morris and a group from the Missouri History Museum climbed over an orange mesh fence and combed through the relics of her once-thriving boutique. Morris, who in happier days sold dresses, handbags and women’s clothing accessories here, watched as historians examined a half-melted keyboard and plucked blue and yellow shoes from the burned mess.
Gwen Moore, a curator at the museum who even before Brown’s death had been developing an exhibit on St. Louis’ role in the civil rights movement, said preserving reminders of Ferguson was important to understanding the modern legacy of longstanding racial injustices. The protests here after Brown’s death in August helped set off a national conversation about race and policing.
"This is a tragedy, but it’s still part of the narrative," Moore, a St. Louis native, said while standing outside Fashions R Boutique. The burned-out store, "shows frustration," she said. "This shows anger."
In Dellwood, Ferguson and the rest of the St. Louis area, residents have settled back into a routine. But piles of collapsed steel, businesses with windows still boarded up and tattered ribbons of crime scene tape remind passers-by that this is not just any slice of blue-collar suburbia.
Peaceful protests continue around St. Louis, though less frequently and without the media attention they once received, and campaigns to impose new rules for the police are continuing here and elsewhere. That leaves the Ferguson story, in many ways, yet to be written, adding a layer of difficulty and sensitivity to historians’ work.
The Missouri Historical Society, which operates the state history museum in St. Louis, recently put out a call for residents to donate items related to the unrest, regardless of whether they sided with the protesters or supported Wilson. Already, the museum has collected plywood from boarded-up windows, T-shirts, protest signs and a program from Brown’s funeral.
There are no immediate plans for a Ferguson-specific exhibit at the museum, officials said, although Moore said she expected to use some relics in her 2017 display on civil rights. Depicting a polarizing event like the Ferguson protests can be fraught with political tensions, but historians say a museum’s role is to portray all sides and allow people to draw their own conclusions.
"This is fresh," said Chris Gordon, the museum’s director of library and collections, "and what we’re trying to do is document as much as we can of the here-and-now so future generations can get a much clearer picture."
Even as the eventual use of the artifacts remains uncertain, there is a widespread sense here that Ferguson was a seminal moment both locally and nationally. With that in mind, historians decided to move quickly to preserve the unfolding events.
Shortly after Brown’s death in August, Washington University in St. Louis began compiling digital artifacts of the protests, including pictures, video and audio. And almost immediately, Ruth Brown, a 73-year-old lifelong Ferguson resident, began saving newspaper articles about the shooting and the backlash. She volunteers as an archivist with the Ferguson Historical Society and has amassed file upon file of clippings.
"This has been more traumatic for us than you can imagine," said Ruth Brown, who is not related to Michael Brown. "But I have, as archivist, made myself collect every newspaper article."
At the Louisiana State Museum, curators followed a similar strategy in the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Mark A. Tullos Jr., the museum’s director, said staff members at the time gathered artifacts and reached out to residents even as they rebuilt their own homes. The result, he said, was a nuanced Katrina exhibit that opened about two years after the disaster, and which remains a popular display.
"We wanted to build a story," Tullos said. "We knew it would be a significant story for not only the community — an opportunity for healing — but something we can share with visitors from around the world."
Morris said that it was an honor to see relics of her store considered as potential museum pieces and that the process had helped with her own healing. Edna Smith, a longtime Fashions R Boutique customer who works for the historical society, asked Morris if she would be open to having the curators visit.
Smith said she had bought clothes from Morris for 28 years, including the last decade or so at the store on West Florissant. She said her friend had developed a loyal following of customers who admired her one-of-a-kind items and in-house alterations.
"If you really wanted to dress, you came to Juanita’s," Smith said. "The night we were watching TV and we saw Fashions R go up, it was just really heartbreaking."
The boutique might not be gone for long, though, underscoring the urgency for historians to collect what they can in and around Ferguson. Morris raised more than $20,000 in an online crowdfunding campaign, and hopes to start demolition on her property next week.
Then she plans to rebuild the boutique, right here on West Florissant.