No one would have blamed Juanita Morris for packing it in after the business she built from scratch vanished in the flames of unrest sparked by the 2014 death of an unarmed Missouri teen at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.

Settling into retirement, after all, was a viable option for the then 70-year-old owner of one of the Ferguson-area businesses looted and torched in the aftermath of the November grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting three months earlier of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Morris was at home that night, watching the scene unfold on television, when she learned via a text message that Juanita's Fashions R Boutique, the clothing store she had launched in her basement and nurtured into a brick-and-mortar destination for sartorially smart St. Louis County residents, was among the structures burning along West Florissant Avenue.

Morris offered a considered response to the events that caught a small, locally owned business in a wave of violence that reverberated around the world.

"They had to have a place to throw off their frustration," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 2015 interview. "And we were that place."

The destruction of the boutique, though shocking, wasn't a complete surprise in the wake of the sporadic violence that had visited Ferguson and adjoining communities in the months after Brown lost his life.

And as the grand jury announcement neared, the disquiet permeating metropolitan St. Louis reached the point of unbearable.

Aware of the potential for disorder, Morris took several precautions before closing the doors earlier than usual on the afternoon of November 24, not the least enlisting her staff to create a smart-phone inventory of the boutique's stock of clothing and accessories.

Morris, for extra measure, took a month's worth of receipts and other documents home that afternoon.

The nationally broadcast announcement that Wilson would not face charges was delivered shortly after 8:30 p.m.

The life work of Juanita Morris was engulfed in flames within two hours.

Four days later, Morris stood before the rubble and vowed that Juanita's Fashions R Boutique would rise from the ashes.

Morris to this day refuses to engage in the blame-gaming for what occurred in Ferguson over the final months of 2014.

Rather than dwell on the individuals who transformed her boutique into a shell, she'll focus instead on the handmade cards from the middle school class who "adopted" and bolstered her in the weeks after the arson.

"The only time I shed a tear was when those kids took the time to encourage an old lady like me," she told the Post-Dispatch.

Deeply devout, Morris never hesitates to credit her faith for the resiliency that sustained her during the worst of the trauma.

But the role of forward preparedness--like the insurance policy that covered the bulk of the business's assets--cannot be discounted.

Nor should the reciprocity of the goodwill Morris invested in the community.

When the insurance compensation fell short, a local fraternity--Phi Beta Sigma--kicked in $20,000 to help close the gap.

Juanita's Fashions R Boutique, true to Morris's vow, began serving customers at a temporary site before the calendar flipped from 2014 to 2015.

Less than a year later, the boutique opened at a permanent location two and a half miles from the destroyed store.

Morris reports that business has increased threefold since the relocation.

And for all the turmoil that turned a once obscure St. Louis suburb into a household name, the preternaturally upbeat Morris says Ferguson has reason to be grateful.

"A lot of lives could have been lost" (other than that of Michael Brown), she said in an interview as the third anniversary of disturbances approached. "I was able to replace everything I lost. But you can't replace a life."

The sales figures, Morris volunteers, offer proof that even the worst of situations "can turn out well."

Published on: Aug 9, 2017