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Harvard professor links St. Louis to history of American racism

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Photos of the Gateway Arch, either completed or in various stages of construction, typically are used to spotlight the role of St. Louis as the Gateway to the West, a key factor in the nation’s growth and the region’s heritage and importance.

But the cover photo of this exhaustive examination of the area’s role in race relations is clearly designed to tell a different story. It shows the monument unfinished, with the north and south legs yet to be joined at the top, under the words “Broken Heart” and framing the subtitle “St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.”

Hyperbole? Absolutely. Even for people who have spent their whole lives in this area, Walter Johnson’s way of connecting the dots of racial strife across the American centuries, and having the message spell out St. Louis, will throw a new, not particularly flattering light on familiar events. Readers of “The Broken Heart of America” will never view the history of the region the same way again.

Johnson certainly intends to have that effect. In his prologue, he puts his contrarian view this way:

“Historians have traditionally treated St. Louis as a representative city, a city that is, at once, east and west, north and south. The place where the various regional histories of the United States come together. The ‘gateway’ to the West, the ‘American confluence,’ a ‘northern city with a southern exposure’ and so on. This book makes a more pointed claim: that St. Louis has been the crucible of American history — that much of American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness in the city of St. Louis.”

Johnson bolsters his case using a litany of familiar names and events placed in an often-unfamiliar context: Lewis and Clark, the Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott, the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet, Mill Creek Valley, Pruitt-Igoe, Margaret Bush Wilson, Percy Green, Frankie Freeman, Michael Brown. He discusses them in the crucible of what he terms “racial capitalism,” which he says has contributed to the corrosive effects of racism.

His selective evidence ranges from the early days of fur trading to the modern practices of payday loans, towns that pad their budgets with nuisance fines and tax increment financing that Johnson says shortchanges African American interests. He describes earlier days when today’s Delmar Divide, with blacks to the north and whites to the south, was instead an east-west demarcation bisected by Grand Boulevard.

Johnson challenges even the seemingly innocent theme song of the 1904 World’s Fair, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” saying it has racial overtones with its talk of dancing the “hoochie-coochie.”

His resulting version of St. Louis history is one that talks of “the juncture of racism and real estate, of the violent management of population and the speculative valuation of property.”

Johnson, who is a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, grew up two hours to the west in Columbia and says he approaches his subject “as a white man and a Missourian.” He came to the topic, he writes, “less as a professional historian than as a citizen taking the measure of a history that I had lived through but yet fully understood. This is a history that I have resisted, but also a history from which I have benefited.”

Just because Johnson teaches at Harvard doesn’t mean the writing in “The Broken Heart of America” is stodgy or academic. He moves the story along briskly and chronologically and shows an occasional flair. Franz Sigel, a figure in St. Louis in the mid-19th century, is depicted this way: “Of medium height, slim and severe, with hollow cheeks and deep-set dark eyes, he looked like Johnny Depp dressed up to play Dracula.”

A few pages later, he describes Sigel’s 20-foot statue in Forest Park as that of “a stone-cold communist.” He quotes at length from comedian Dick Gregory’s wry observations of the effects of St. Louis segregation and describes local efforts at gentrification in the pithy words of activist Ivory Perry: “Black removal by white approval.”

Johnson generally sticks to his main thesis, though some readers may find his discussions about labor union activities and communist influence a little too long and a little too off-point. But he brings the story of local racial history into the present day with the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction that made “Ferguson” synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.

And he evaluates the current situation:

“St. Louis, a national leader in both tax diversion and predatory lending, is once again a city on the frontier of the future, this time pioneering modes of extraction and dispossession by which people who have been deprived of just about everything else — neighborhoods, jobs, education, health care, safety — can be squeezed dry.”

Then, surprisingly, Johnson pivots to optimism, in an epilogue titled “The Right Place for All the Wrong Reasons.” He praises local activists such as Jamala Rogers and Tef Poe for their work in the wake of Ferguson, and looking beyond the surface discontent, he sees the roots of a better future.

“… These ordinary people are doing something beautiful and profound. They are imagining new ways to live in the city, to connect with and care for one another, to be human. They are doing what marginal and radical people in St. Louis have always done: getting on with it and pointing the way forward for a nation that has not yet learned to listen.”

Maybe that incomplete Arch on the cover will be filled in after all.

Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.


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