There was a bit of minor news made in the public history world last week when Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill changing the name of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis to Gateway Arch National Park. Within my circle of public history and National Park Service colleagues the name change has been greeted with mixed reviews. And, of course, there had to be at least one disgruntled St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the actions of “politically correct” politicians who allegedly changed the name simply because they wanted to “avoid honoring those who brought white privilege to the Plains.” I guess we shouldn’t bring up slavery, Sally Hemings, or anything mildly critical of Jefferson around this guy, or else we’ll have to face claims of hating history and America.
In any case, my opinion is that the name change is half good and half bad. “Gateway Arch” is good, “National Park” . . . not so much. Here are a few thoughts on the name change:
The name for the site came before the Gateway Arch existed: The U.S. government began looking for a suitable monument to Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s. Civic boosters in St. Louis advocated for the memorial to be placed there to symbolize Jefferson’s role in the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, but also to revitalize a decaying downtown riverfront infrastructure. The Gateway Arch structure designed by Eero Saarinen was not created until 1947 and not completed until 1965. Whether intentional or not, the Gateway Arch complements Thomas Jefferson’s legacy but has also superseded it as a symbol of the site. People don’t visit the site because it’s associated with Thomas Jefferson – they visit because they want to see the Arch.
Nobody calls it “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”: The vast majority of people who visit the site don’t call it by its official name, which, again, was established before the symbolic centerpiece of the site was established thirty years later.
Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is important, but it is not the sole theme for site interpretation: Thomas Jefferson never lived in nor visited St. Louis or the state of Missouri. His home in Virginia–Monticello–is a national shrine, as are national significantly places where he lived and worked, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. While his role in advancing westward expansion is no doubt significant, he is not the only person who had an important role in encouraging white westward expansion, especially within the context of Missouri. It could be argued that “Lewis and Clark National Expansion Memorial” would be an equally relevant name for the site, especially since they had a direct connection to the area.
Equally important, the site interprets other stories connected to westward expansion that go beyond the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Old Courthouse, located across the street from the Arch and a part of park’s holdings, was the site where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. In this sense the site also interprets the antebellum politics of slavery’s westward expansion, manifest destiny, Indian removal, and the coming of the American Civil War. Additionally, the historical scholarship that informed the decision to name the site after Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s has admittedly evolved and been revised. Western history has become more complex and critical of territorial expansion and its negative consequences for the Native American Indian tribes that bore the brunt of this expansive vision. A simple interpretation of the expansion of freedom and American liberty to the west in the 19th century is no longer sustainable.
Naming the site after the Gateway Arch–a symbol of westward expansion and the title that visitors already give for the site–is a positive move that offers a more inclusive interpretation of the history of westward expansion. Jefferson’s vision of a westward “Empire of Liberty” won’t be erased by this name change. He’ll still be interpreted by park rangers and have a prominent place inside the park’s museum. But perhaps Jefferson’s political views will occupy a new interpretive space that sits in tension with other conceptions of westward expansion and its consequences, giving visitors a range of perspectives to contemplate during their experience at the park. From an educational standpoint this development is a positive one and will not, as the disgruntled letter to the editor writer suggests, lead to a simple interpretation of Jefferson bringing “white privilege to the plains.”
Calling the site a “National Park” is a mistake: The National Park Service includes more than 400 units throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands. 59 of these sites are designated as “National Parks.” The Gateway Arch is the 60th such site, and it is nothing like the others. It’s located in an urban center, has only 91 acres in size, and has a remarkably different interpretive mission than the other National Park sites in terms of content. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the other NPS units designated as “National Parks.” Missouri’s Congressional delegation pushed to have the site named a “National Park,” however, because the other 59 sites are the crown jewels of the agency and its most popularly visited sites. In other words, calling the Gateway Arch a “National Park” is motivated by tourism and money.
There are more than fourteen different park designations used by the NPS. This designation system, in my opinion, is overly cumbersome and confusing for visitors. Any sort of semblance these designations offer is made all the more confusing by designating a place like the Gateway Arch as a “National Park.” If I were in charge of things I would consolidate the park designation system to make it more user friendly, and I would have implemented the name “Gateway Arch National Monument” instead of Gateway Arch National Park for this particular site.