Ferguson. One loaded word that now represents raw emotion and pain, a community ripped apart and thrust into the glare of the national media spotlight. I recently visited friends in St. Louis and felt drawn to see a place where such significant events had recently taken place. We decided to take a drive to Ferguson. This blog is about history sites and I repeatedly bring up the power of place. What I saw last week continues to haunt me.
History is about change over time. Is Ferguson a spark that began change? Will it only be remembered years from now as a local history event that for a few months captivated the nation? The Missouri History Museum has already started collecting items from the event, anticipating its historical significance.
We drove down the main street of Ferguson, a nice suburb a few miles from the St. Louis airport. The town began around a railroad depot in 1855 on land deeded by William Ferguson to the Wabash Railroad. I’m not sure what I was expecting. There were several boarded up windows of businesses on the street, but no swath of destruction. There was the police station I had seen on the news. The windows held murals with messages of encouragement and hope and empowerment.
Next, we drove toward Canfield Drive, site of the shooting. I was apprehensive. Was this morbid? Was it traumatic tourism? Was it appropriate?
The day’s rawness, gray and rainy, was appropriate for the rawness we were about to see. About three miles from the main street we were confronted with the destruction, there for all to see. Building after building destroyed, burned and twisted. An entire gas station in ruins. Was this America? This wasn’t the effects of a natural disaster or an accidental fire, but of rage.
Like many Americans I had read about the tragic events surrounding Michael Brown’s death with a jumble of emotions. So much of this event is hard to understand for so many people. I was sad at a community destroyed and a life cut short.
Ironically, earlier that day, my friends and I had visited the Old Courthouse in the shadow of the famous Arch, only fifteen or so minutes from Ferguson. Opened in 1845, the impressive building with its soaring dome is perhaps most well-known as the beginning point for one of the most famous cases tried in the American court system. Dred and Harriet Scott, an enslaved couple in Missouri, sued for their freedom. They had moved with their owners to “free” areas of the country. The case was not necessarily big news at the beginning, but wound its way through the courts, with appeals, and eventually came to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1857 the Court ruled 7-2 against the Scotts, making a big statement about African Americans and citizenship and freedom and about slavery throughout the nation: slaves had no right to sue in federal court because they weren’t citizens. Although the Court ruled against him, Scott received his freedom from a new owner right there in the Old Courthouse building, less than three months after the Supreme Court decision. He died a year later and was buried in St. Louis. Today Dred Scott is famous in American history as one of several sparks that helped light the conflagration of the Civil War.
What images will the word “Ferguson” bring to mind in ten years, twenty? Will the place continue to hold power? Only time will tell if Ferguson will be widely remembered as a history place where change began. It might depend on who is telling the story.