A Review of “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”

The Broken Heart of AmericaThis is not the history of St. Louis that your parents learned about!

That was the first thought that ran through my head as I began reading Walter Johnson’s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020). Whereas James Neal Primm’s history of St. Louis (1981) often celebrated the city’s capitalist growth, industrial might, and institutional popularity (the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Gateway Arch, for example), Johnson’s transparently Marxist interpretation asks readers to pull back the fancy curtains to take a more critical look at the growth of the Gateway to the West. Readers are challenged with considering larger questions about the relationship between capital and labor, the use of racist legislation to not just segregate but literally remove Black and Brown people from the city, and to consider whether or not capitalism can ensure a more just future in the United States.

Johnson contends that the history of St. Louis has meaning and relevance to all Americans. From the city’s 1764 founding to the Ferguson unrest of more recent days, St. Louis has served as a flashpoint of the nation’s most pressing political debates throughout U.S. history. As Johnson puts it, “St. Louis has been the crucible of American history . . . much of American history has unfolded from the junction of empire and anti-Blackness . . . [it] rose as the morning star of US imperialism. It was from St. Louis, itself a city built on stolen land, that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed on the journey to survey the commercial potential of the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory, the homeland of dozens of nations that had not been party to the bargain” (5).

Spanning outward from Lewis and Clark, Johnson shows how numerous treaties ceding millions of acres–often signed by the leaders of various Indian nations under threats of violence from the U.S. military–were signed in St. Louis. He highlights how Jefferson Barracks was not just the country’s largest military post in the 1840s but the vanguard of westward military strength. The violence of slavery is highlighted as an important part of the St. Louis economy’s growth before the Civil War. Meanwhile, a growing antislavery sentiment in the city during the 1850s led by Frank Blair and Benjamin Gratz Brown called for the state’s enslaved population to not only be emancipated, but to then be colonized to another country so that white laborers could settle in new western territories without having to compete with enslaved labor. In this sense, St. Louis’s political leadership before the Civil War was not divided over slavery because of its morality or the way the institution harmed enslaved African Americans, but because this political leadership was divided as to whether or not slavery helped advance the interests of White laborers. 

Johnson’s treatment continues into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and early 20th century. Of particular interest in this section is the General Strike of 1877, a nationwide strike that had much of its roots in the grievances of the laboring class in St. Louis. Johnson contends that the significance of the Reconstruction era cannot be based only on the story of expanding civil and political rights for African American men, but on the ways labor fought for better working conditions, fair pay, and limited work hours. Whereas the pre-Civil War Republican party argued that the interests of capital and labor were in harmony, Johnson argues that industrialization during the last half of the nineteenth century exposed how the two interests were in conflict with each other. The brutal crushing of the 1877 General Strike was, in Johnson’s terms, a “counterrevolution of property” against labor’s resistance to the forces of industrial capitalism. Johnson attempts to prove the point further by using future chapters to highlight the exploitive nature of the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1917 East St. Louis riots, which were really a racial massacre against the city’s Black laborers. 

While I am not a scholar of twentieth century U.S. history and even less of an expert on today’s politics, I found Johnson’s treatment of St. Louis during this time to be enlightening. In sum, St. Louis is the 6th most segregated city in the United States today because of deliberate policy decisions. St. Louis in the 20th century is marked by numerous efforts to remove and relocate Black St. Louisians in the interest of removing blighted housing areas and promoting urban renewal. Johnson gives special attention to the story of Mill Creek Valley, a Black neighborhood of nearly 20,000 residents that began to be demolished on orders of the city’s white leadership in 1959 to promote urban renewal. Civil Rights leader Ivory Perry described the demolition of Mill Creek and subsequent forced removal of its Black residents as “Black removal by White approval.”

Elsewhere, Johnson discusses the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of the city’s downtown core to make way for the construction of the Gateway Arch, attempts to enforce racial zoning codes (U.S. v. Black Jack, Missouri, 1974), efforts to keep a Black doctor from settling in Creve Coeur by turning the property he wanted to purchase into a public park, the destruction of Meachum Park, a Black neighborhood in Kirkwood, the construction of four interstate highways through downtown St. Louis (the only city in the U.S. to have four separate interstate highways connected to it) to facilitate suburban growth out after World War II, and the use of Tax-Increment Financing to promote business growth at the expense of necessary tax revenue. As an example of the latter, Johnson points out that Michael Brown’s Normandy School District, struggling and unaccredited, is located next to Emerson Electric, an immensely wealthy company with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. 

There are numerous mistakes and omissions throughout the narrative, and I did not always agree with Johnson’s conclusions. On the more minor side of things, Johnson misdates the Emancipation Proclamation to March 1863, mistakenly names Confederate General Daniel Frost as “David” Frost, describes Ulysses S. Grant as “an indifferent farmer” while living in St. Louis (not sure what that is supposed to mean), and incorrectly states that the 1820 Missouri Compromise extended the 36-30 line dividing slavery to the Pacific Ocean. This was an impossibility given that the line only applied to lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and that what is today the Western United States was still owned by Spain at this time. 

More serious are omissions of key moments in St. Louis history that could have further enhanced the narrative. For example, for all the early discussion of Indian removal that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there is no discussion of the Treaty of Fort Clark (1808), which formally ceded St. Louis and most of present-day Missouri from the Little and Great Osage nations, or the Treaty of St. Louis (1824), which saw the Sac and Fox tribes cede northeastern Missouri and other lands to the U.S. government. Moving to Reconstruction, the focus on the 1877 General Strike leads to the omitting of noteworthy Black St. Louisians such as James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, and Charleston Tandy from the narrative. Whereas Black civil rights leaders in St. Louis during the 20th century are named and discussed in-depth, the same treatment is not given for exploring Black life immediately after the Civil War. Another noteworthy omission is the Populist Party convention that was held in St. Louis in 1892. Through this convention we can see the intersection of labor advocacy with settler colonialism and the abandonment of Black rights by a major political party. I would also add that with the exception of German immigrants, there is scant attention paid to other immigrant groups who came to St. Louis. How did these groups interact with the racial politics of St. Louis? If St. Louis is truly the “Broken Heart of America,” then why have so many other people from the world over considered this broken heart the answer to their own broken dreams? 

Finally, a note on agency. Agency is, broadly defined, the ability of an individual or group to shape a course of events. Johnson is famously skeptical of the concept as it relates to slavery. In a 2003 essay he argued that historians excessively rely on agency arguments to demonstrate the “humanity” of the enslaved. Johnson responded that all people, whether enslaved or enslavers, demonstrate humanity by their mere existence. Fighting in favor of slavery was as much a part of “humanity” as fighting against slavery. More to the point, he questioned how slavery could have existed as a powerful force in American life for so long if the enslaved were able to truly demonstrate agency on a mass scale. By overplaying the role of agency in resistance to slavery, Johnson argued that historians ran the risk of “practicing therapy rather than politics[.] We are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.” 

These are fair points and historians must keep them in mind when trying to place the experiences of Black and Brown people within the context of 18th and 19th United States history. But I do think there is a danger, particularly with regards to students learning about U.S. history, with focusing on the nature of white supremacy without accounting for the ways enslaved people and people forcibly removed from their homelands resisted this world order, both in large and small ways. This tension explains my frustration with the lack of attention paid to Black resistance to white supremacy during the Reconstruction era in The Broken Heart of America. If students read about the overwhelming reach of white supremacy and conclude that “it’s been like this for 200 years, I won’t be able to do anything about it today,” I fear that the force of history could act as a barrier to meaningful reform rather than an inspiration to make the world anew in the future. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Broken Heart of America. While disagreements about the Marxist interpretation of history will emerge from readers of this book, Johnson convincingly shows that capitalism, as it has been practiced in St. Louis, has a less than spectacular history of promoting justice for all. A system built to promote white prosperity and racial supremacy through slavery and Indian removal continues to have ramifications for policy today. How to promote a just and fair society in the United States will always be a point fierce debate, but one thing is true: readers will never look at St. Louis the same way again after reading The Broken Heart of America

Cheers

2 thoughts on “A Review of “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”

  1. I really like your point about teaching the best aspects of Reconstruction, the progress that was made for a short time, so that people know that this is possible.

    1. Thanks, Carmel. For me, I think it’s very important for students to see how majority viewpoints within a society are challenged, and to see that change really can happen. Otherwise history becomes just a set of pre-determined facts and dates.

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