FERGUSON • Across the country, the image of a burning QuikTrip in August 2014 came to symbolize the anger and violence after the fatal shooting of a black teen by a white police officer.
On Wednesday morning, the National Urban League will use the site of the former convenience store to officially kick off its four-day conference in St. Louis, expected to draw more than 20,000 people. Where the QuikTrip once stood on West Florissant Avenue is a new job training and education center, co-owned by the local Urban League and the Salvation Army.
On Tuesday, workers were rushing to get the building ready to open and installing a large white tent on the center’s parking lot where the private ceremony will be held.
Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said holding the conference in St. Louis will highlight the challenges that black America still faces but also showcase work being done to level the playing field.
“The challenges the St. Louis region faces are like the challenges of many major cities,” he said. Poverty, disparity in education and police relationships, among them. Building the $4 million center to provide opportunities for north St. Louis County residents to receive the proper training to get jobs will help create a more economically viable region and allow for more families to have a financially stable life, Morial said.
Last year, the 107-year-old civil rights organization held its national conference in Baltimore. Eight months after Brown’s death, Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore, leading to protests and riots there. Charges against three police officers were dropped after three others were acquitted.
The Ferguson center, not far from Canfield Green, the apartment complex where Michael Brown was shot by then-Officer Darren Wilson, will feature a memorial to the teen. His parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lezley McSpadden, are expected at the event Wednesday.
The memorial consists of a bench on a large pad of concrete. In the concrete and tucked partially under the bench is a bronze plaque with the familiar image of Brown, a recent high school graduate, wearing a mortarboard.
“In memory of Michael O.D. Brown, May 20, 1996-August 9, 2014,” the plaque reads.
Mixed into the concrete are 100 shredded stuffed animals. The animals were part of a makeshift memorial that grew in the middle of Canfield Drive, where Brown died. As a result, the concrete is flecked with pink, orange and yellow.
“This bench and decorative concrete base commemorate the social justice, change and movement towards a more just society that came about after his death,” the plaque reads. “This base contains pieces of his memorial in the Canfield Green Apartments complex brought by people from all over the world.”
The stuffed animals, removed because of a planned street repaving and for safety reasons, were put into storage by the Urban League. They were replaced in May 2015 with a permanent marker and a bronze dove, installed in a sidewalk along Canfield Drive.
Michael McMillan, CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said the center’s memorial was designed with input from Brown’s parents and is appropriate for the “ground zero” site, a convenience store burned and looted, then used as a backdrop for protests.
Morial said that while the national conference officially takes place in downtown St. Louis, having the opening ceremony in Ferguson is a necessity. Rather than being known solely as a flashpoint, Ferguson can be cast as a place of rebuilding and providing economic opportunities, especially for African-American men through the Urban League’s “Save Our Sons” job training program. More than 75 percent of the workers and contractors who built the center are African-American.
But, Morial stressed, the conference and its focus on Ferguson also will serve as a reminder that much more work needs to be done here and throughout the country.
“Michael Brown died at the hands of police, and no one was held accountable. We cannot and should not forget,” Morial said.
One of the sessions of the conference is titled: “Ferguson: From Anger to Action.”
After the shooting of Brown, “the fight for equality and justice continues,” reads the description of the Friday morning session. “That same fight lives on in many cities and communities. What are the tangible strategies for racial healing? How can community activists and organizers inspire citizens to channel their frustrations into meaningful action?”
Michael F. Neidorff, CEO of Centene Corp. and chairman of the National Urban League board, will be among company executives and dignitaries at the opening ceremony. During a breakfast in March to formally announce the conference was coming to St. Louis for the first time since 2007, Neidorff said it is an opportunity to show off the region’s diversity and the strides made since the fallout that made Ferguson a household word.
“There is a responsibility on us to show the rest of the country who we are,” he said then. Neidorff’s company has taken the lead in investing in Ferguson.
Earlier this month, Centene Corp. said it was spending $1.3 million to open an urgent and primary care health facility inside a Schnucks grocery in Ferguson. The Clayton-based managed care company is expected to partner with the Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers to open the facility, which will provide immunizations, dental services and other health care services for adults and children over the age of 3.
Last year, Centene opened a $25 million service center with more than 200 employees. At a grand opening for that facility, Neidorff said he wanted to help rebuild Ferguson after hearing that some small-business owners were considering not reopening after businesses were destroyed and damaged in unrest after Brown’s death.
The local chapter of the Urban League was formed as a result of the East St. Louis riots in 1917, McMillan said. Having St. Louis hold the conference during the 100-year commemoration of that dark time in history was something for which his organization lobbied. It’s a way to mark progress while not forgetting the past, he said.
The new 13,500-square-foot facility is formally named the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. In addition to housing programs run by the Urban League and Salvation Army, the Lutheran Hope Center and the University of Missouri Extension also will provide services.