In the summer of 1969, I lived with my boyfriend in a Marxist commune in New Haven, Connecticut. Almost every evening, we sat around the living room having discussions about political issues (and working out personal issues between members of the commune). I mostly kept quiet because I wasn’t a Marxist, only a Marxist-in-law, as it were.
But my boyfriend and I discussed the issues when we were by ourselves. The root of our disagreement was that he thought the main problem in the US was class disparity and I thought it was racism. In his new book, The Broken Heart of America, Harvard historian Walter Johnson shows exactly how we were both right and that the flashing light illuminating both of these issues from almost the beginning of the American experiment has been, and is, St. Louis, Missouri, my home town.
Johnson is both scathing and precise in his analysis of how and why, “From the Lewis and Clark expedition to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the launching of Black Lives Matter, many of the events that we consider central to the history of the United States occurred in St. Louis.”
And then there is what Johnson calls, “the often forgotten radical history of St. Louis,” in which people of color (frequently women) and other groups fought back, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Johnson acknowledges that previous historians have noted St. Louis’s geographical location at the junction, not only of the Missouri and the Mississippi, but of the north and south, east and west, but, he says, “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, who teaches history and African-American studies at Harvard, has the patience and the writing skills to lay out his story in riveting detail over 500 pages.
Let’s begin with the native Americans. The Cahokia Mounds, straight across the river from Delmar Boulevard, defines the racial divide in present day St. Louis, in the flats of Illinois there is a beautiful green park, once a city established and built by Native Americans. They arrived about 1100 AD, possibly migrants through the Ohio River valley. The soil was excellent, and allowed the Cahokians to construct 120 huge mounds—the conical ones were for burials, the platform mounds for habitation, and long, triangular ones, called “ridgetop mounds,” that might have been built for defense or burials.
By around 1400, they had to leave, perhaps because overpopulation had depleted the local resources. In the spot where St. Louis is now, there were twenty-five mounds. They had been torn down by the time of the Civil War. Johnson relates that the descents of the mound builders included the Mandan, the Arikara, and the Hidatsa tribes, peoples that Lewis and Clark encountered along the Missouri River in the beginning of the 1800s.
But Lewis and Clark were not anthropologists nor observers; they were scouts, looking for ways to lay claim to the Native American lands, using removal, extraction, and exploitation to drive out owners of property that were (are) not white, were (are) not capitalists, were (are) not on board with buying and selling everything—humans and their children, animals, crops, minerals, topsoil, acres, weapons of war, the government, and the future of the planet.
When Clark got back to St. Louis from his expedition up the Missouri, he sold one of his family’s slaves and built himself an office “for licensing white explorers, traders, and trappers who planned to travel beyond St. Louis into Indian country.” For a while, the most important were the trappers, who made St. Louis into a hub of the fur trade—mostly beaver pelts, trapped, skinned, and processed mostly by Native Americans.
This system may have seemed productive for the Native Americans, but as early as 1803, Thomas Jefferson was laying out his plan (his plot) to draw the Native Americans more and more deeply into debt so that they would have to hand over their lands to repay what they had “borrowed”.
When I was growing up, I knew the word Chouteau as the name of a street that ran west from the river to Forest Park. It was named after Pierre Chouteau, a fur trader who had a wife from the Osage tribe and another wife (or mistress) from Louisiana. He lived in St. Louis, while his brother, Auguste, lived among the Osage (and fathered at least 16 children with multiple native American or mixed-race women).
The Chouteaus relied on the Native Americans to make money for them; in addition, various Native American tribes entered alliances with the Americans in order to fend off rival tribes. After Missouri became a state in 1820, Senator Thomas Hart Benton went into the Senate, where he made sure that the Chouteaus benefited from a treaty with the Osage nation that transferred “hundreds of thousands of acres to the Chouteau family in repayment for Osage debts supposedly incurred at the family ’s company stores.”
By 1838, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (run by Clark) had removed 81,000 Native Americans, members of at least seven tribes, from 419 million acres. And, by the way, the house I grew up in was on Clark Avenue
Johnson writes, “In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, St. Louis became the military headquarters of the Western Department of the US Army and the staging post for the Indian Wars.” Senator Benton was an old rival of Andrew Jackson, who was in favor of going to war with the Native Americans and killing them. Benton had a different plan—just claim their lands and sell them at the lowest possible price to any white man who wanted to buy them, or maybe just move into the Native Americans’ dwellings, drive the owners away, and take over their crops.
Jackson and Benton set their conflicts aside and became good friends. They erected a large military post about ten miles southeast of my grandparents’ future house and named it after Thomas Jefferson. Johnson writes, “In the decades before the Civil War, Indian fighting was big business in the City of St. Louis,” which provided food but also weaponry and horses. One soldier whom Thomas Hart Benton particularly favored was William Harney, a “dragoon” from Tennessee who showed up at Jefferson Barracks in 1823.
He was the personification of the intersection between Native American slaughter and racial crimes against African Americans. In 1834, he beat to death a woman slave named Hannah. Johnson writes, “He had misplaced his keys and blamed her for hiding them.” The upside of the case was that in St. Louis there was public outrage at Hannah’s death. The downside was that a corrupt judge transferred the jurisdiction of the case to a county outside of town that was more pro-slavery, and Harney was acquitted, put back into the dragoons, sent off to Florida for the Seminole War. By the mid-1850s, he was known among the Sioux as “Woman Killer.” And then they named a street in St. Louis after him.
The principal subject of The Broken Heart of America is African-American struggles, and St. Louis, in Johnson’s depiction, represents the never-ending back and forth between racists and anti-racists.
This is a review and not a summary of the book (though Johnson’s exploration of the history of St. Louis makes that tempting). A couple of key episodes must be noted, however. One is what turned out to be the effects of The Missouri Compromise, which, in 1820, allowed for Missouri to join the union as a slave state, offset by Maine’s entrance as a free state. 1820—two hundred years ago and only thirty-two years after the ratification of the American Constitution.
The US government certainly wanted this trading hotspot at the juncture of the Missouri and the Mississippi to come under federal control, but northerners wanted to outlaw slavery and southerners wanted slavery to continue in the state. The arguments on both sides were graphic and threatening, so much so that Jefferson, slave-owner and epic waffler on the subject, wrote to a friend that, “This momentous question, like a fireball in the night, awakened and filed me with terror.”
The reason was that Jefferson, like most slave-owning waffles, thought that the “institution would die out on its own.” But the mere act of discussing it drew protective and angry lines around the issue. Jefferson, it can be argued, knew that slavery was not “good for black people”, but its defenders fell back on the argument that it was more and more after the Missouri Compromise.
Johnson’s main point is that because St. Louis was the organizing center of Indian Removal, home to few slaves, to a significant population of free African Americans, and to many white men from the east who were scrambling for second chances, the competition for jobs and income had to rely on theories of white supremacy and the backlash against white supremacy.
In St. Louis before the Civil War, there was actually what writer Cyprian Clamorgan called “Colored Aristocracy”—a group that included a woman named Pelagie Rutgers, who was worth half a million dollars (about $14,000,000 today.) One thing Johnson points out is that “…the violence of slavery in St. Louis was an index of is vulnerability, not it’s vitality.”
It was vulnerable partly because it was so easy for slaves to escape across the river, partly because there were so many free African Americans, and partly because plenty of African American writers, including three women, could write about their experiences and get them published.
St. Louis was also, famously, the scene of the Dred Scott decision, but a lesser known legal decision preceded it—a woman slave, Winny, was taken by her owner from Illinois to St. Louis in 1818. She sued for her freedom and won her case in 1824 on the grounds that she had lived for several years in free territory. Subsequently, several hundred slaves won their freedom in Missouri using her case as precedent.
The Dred Scott case was a reaction to thirty years of enslaved African Americans successfully using legal means to fight slavery. Punch/counterpunch. And then came Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War.
According to Johnson, abolitionism was more complicated than we have been taught. It was closely tied to Native American removal, and the principal goal was to give non-slave holding white men access to western lands without competition by slaveholding white men. Fort Sumter was fired on in April, 1961, St. Louis, and Jefferson Barracks, with all of its arms, equipment, and provisions. “Woman-killer” William Harney was in charge of the arsenal, and by May, 1861, Harney was ready to not defend it but to hand it over to secessionist sympathizers in St. Louis and in Missouri, which included the Missouri governor, Claiborne Jackson.
Nathaniel Lyon had different ideas. He spied on a group of southern-sympathizers training in the western edge of the city, recruited 8,000 soldiers, surrounded, and captured the secessionist trainees, and took them back to the arsenal to be imprisoned. Afterwards, Johnson writes, “For several days, the city of St. Louis teetered on the brink of an all-out war,” but even two days later, southern sympathizers, at least ones with means, were preparing themselves to flee the city. Two of the soldiers who witnessed Lyon’s preemptive victory were Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. By the end of the month, Harney was out, and St. Louis (and Missouri) did not secede.
One significant detail about Lyon’s action was that his anti-slavery militia was composed of at least one third German immigrants, a large population in St. Louis, and a group deeply opposed to slavery. After the retention of St. Louis. Lyon and his men pursued their pro-slavery antagonists south and west to Springfield and Rolla, employing escaped slaves as scouts and then equipping them with military gear so that they could join the Union Army. Johnson writes, “these Black Americans told their stories, denounced their erstwhile owners as traitors, and offered their labor, and even their lives.”
Another episode that put St. Louis of the leading edge of racial issues was the opposite of Jefferson Barracks, the newly founded Benton Barracks, fifteen miles up the river, on the northside, where, Johnson writes, “The first regiments of US Colored Troops—the Sixty-Second, Sixty-Fifth, and Sixty-Seventh US Infantry—were formed…in May 1863, months before the formation of Black regiments elsewhere.”
He adds, “By the time the Missouri State Constitution of 1865 made their legal emancipation official and irrevocable, most of those who had been enslaved in St. Louis had long since claimed freedom for themselves.” Three public schools for African American children were opened in 1866, and in 1868, public street cars became legally integrated.
But of course, there was backlash, and after the Civil War, whites in St. Louis turned their attention back to Native American removal, expropriation, and extermination. The idea that this was the destined future of the US was so strong that in 1869, there was discussion about moving the US capital from Washington D.C. to St. Louis, which would be closer to the expropriated lands and at the center of the nation, but what did the idea in was that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, coming means of transportation, ran into and out of Chicago, not St. Louis.
The first bridge across the Mississippi, the Eads Bridge, was too little and too late. Eventually, plenty of railroads passed through St. Louis, but try as they might, St. Louisans never caught up to the Windy City.
The Civil War ends about 25% into Johnson’s book, and the next 150 years are equally interesting—carefully written and dramatic, with many details and a strong overarching theory—that racism is essential to the accumulation of wealth and power by the privileged (very) few, and that they (very) privileged few know this, and never hesitate to stir up feelings of white resentment in order to keep the funds and the power rolling in.
Johnson’s book ends by exploring the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. He focuses less on what actually happened in the shooting than he does on the shooting as an example of something else: “The City of Ferguson, with its white mayor, its majority-white city council, its almost totally white police force and its white municipal judge—was farming its poor and working class black population for revenue.”
That is, not only stopping pedestrians and drivers for minimal offenses and then jacking up the fines for missed court dates or unpaid tickets, but also using the fines rather than taxes (Ferguson has plenty of large businesses, but they pay little to no taxes) to finance the government.
He then points out that nineteen prisons have been built in Missouri in the last forty years, all in rural areas where the employees are white, using prisons as a profit-making enterprise. The riots that began after the killing Michael Brown lasted, off and on, for months, and though his killer was not arrested or indicted, the City of Ferguson did pay Brown’s parents $1,500,000 after being sued for wrongful death.
For those who are not from St. Louis, and may never have been there, reading Johnson’s book probably causes a lot of nodding, and repeated thoughts of, “I would have expected that,” but for those of us who grew up there, the effect is more depressing, causing us to question our own pasts as well as the behavior of our relatives.
My elementary school was peacefully integrated when I started second grade. My mother and I lived in a mixed neighborhood. I never heard my relatives use the N-word. But how did they think or talk when we weren’t looking at them? I have no idea. However, detailing St. Louis’s fascist, exploitative past is not Johnson’s point. He makes his real point in the last paragraph of the chapter about Brown’s killing: “On August 9, 2014, the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history. When the time came, they were ready—subjects of a history of serial dispossession and imperial violence so profound that it has been built into the very fabric and common sense of the city, yes, but also legatees of a history of Black radicalism as measurelessly implacable as the flow of the rivers.”
And then there is an epilogue, detailing how “All over the city, people are finding new ways to live, to connect, to cultivate new sorts of spaces, to grow into new sorts of people.” After listing various programs designed to improve the lives of black St. Louisans, he ends with a track team coached by an African American woman whose own son was shot to death in 2017.
He writes, “Of the fifty or so kids who form the core of the team, almost half qualified for the Junior Olympics in 2019. They fly around the track in the fading light, little kids taking impossibly long strides.”
The publication of The Broken Heart of America could not have been more timely—six weeks before the killing of George Floyd. Johnson’s insights might have shaped the way we have talked about the killing, but there aren’t many reviews (when I look for a review in the Washington Post under “St. Louis,” I mostly find news about the Cardinals, though the WaPo did publish an Op-ed by Johnson). The virus and DT have overwhelmed the sort of conversation we should have had. But if Johnson has hope, then I do too. And my hope is that this book will find a huge audience.
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