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.