Walter Johnson doesn’t mince words in his blistering new book. The history of St. Louis, he states, “is centrally framed by the history of genocide, removal, and the expropriation and control of land — all justified in the name of white supremacy.” You have been warned: This will not be a dry, academic account, although the author is a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard. “The Broken Heart of America” is an outraged dissection of a malignant pattern Johnson discerns in the way white St. Louis treated Native Americans and then Blacks, a pattern he sees as relevant to us all because “St. Louis has been the crucible of American history.”
In Johnson’s account, the pattern takes shape in the early 19th century, when St. Louis was a staging ground for “Indian removal,” which pushed Native Americans off their traditional homelands so whites could settle there. It solidified in the 20th century with illegal restrictive housing covenants enforcing residential segregation and urban renewal projects that tore down Black neighborhoods in favor of commercial development tailored to retail and real estate interests. (If the city bothered to relocate the displaced at all, it was frequently in gigantic housing projects that quickly deteriorated when maintenance staff and budgets were cut.) The pattern is still evident in the 21st century all over the metropolitan St. Louis area. The city of Ferguson, to cite a notorious example, drew 60 percent of its 2013-14 budget from sales tax, municipal court fines mostly from people arrested for minor offenses, and taxes on telecommunications, gas, and electricity usage. These are regressive fees weighing most heavily on the poor, while companies like Emerson Electric got tax abatements in return for constructing corporate centers in Enhanced Enterprise Zones located in neighborhoods designated by the state as blighted, which almost always meant Black.
It’s a shameful story, and Johnson tells it lucidly in appropriate detail. Readers who pay attention will emerge from his book knowing a lot more about (among other things) tax increment financing, which uses municipal bonds to fund commercial development; and about Harland Bartholomew, St. Louis city planning commissioner from 1919 to 1950, who pioneered automobile-based urban planning and the use of eminent domain to appropriate private property for government projects — such as highways that ran through Black neighborhoods to white suburbs. It’s possible to wish that Johnson’s rhetoric did not play into the hands of conservative pundits who portray universities as hotbeds of Marxism. His guiding principle is radical scholar Cedric Robinson’s concept of “racial capitalism,” which Johnson defines as “the intertwined history of white supremacy and practices of empire, extraction, and exploitation.” You don’t need to buy the antiquated great-men-leading-the-march-of-progress version of American history to find Johnson’s relentless application of Robinson’s global theory to St. Louis occasionally simplistic.
Mind you, Johnson backs up his assertions with documentation, though he sometimes over-reads the evidence. Anyone inclined to dismiss his characterization of the free soil movement, which vehemently opposed the expansion of slavery into western territories, as “a white supremacist anti-slavery argument” may think again when they read this excerpt from an 1857 speech by free-soil leader and Missouri state Representative B. Gratz Brown: “The African race and its concomitant slavery will go down and vanish in these United States as the Indian race has gone down and vanished beneath the tread and march of the Anglo-Saxon and nothing else under God’s blue heaven will ever supplant it in the State of Missouri.” But Johnson’s claim that this position became “the mainstream of the Republican Party” is a stretch. Eric Foner’s seminal history, “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” describes such virulent racism as most common in the West and points out that many Republicans had a long history of support for what were then known as Negro rights.
Overheated and overstated though it sometimes is, Johnson’s narrative is also comprehensive and convincing in its particulars. From a family fortune built on Native American land acquired by government treaty to Black-owned homes condemned to make way for a high-end shopping mall, he makes it painfully clear that throughout St. Louis history, local and state officials have fostered white wealth via nonwhite removal. A detailed account of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot grimly buttresses Johnson’s contention that working-class whites have been easily manipulated by racism to blame Blacks for injustices perpetrated by their employers and enabled by politicians. This somber material is tempered by more optimistic chapters about St. Louis’ history of interracial radicalism: during and immediately after the Civil War, in groundbreaking labor and civil rights struggles during the 1930s, and in the militant activism of the 1950s and ‘60s. Yet in the end a “counter-revolution of property” always prevailed.
In the book’s later chapters, firsthand testimony by activists and other Black St. Louisans offers a human complement to Johnson’s over-determined theoretical framework, and some salty quotes make it clear that you don’t need to be a Harvard professor to understand the economic underpinnings of racism in America. A more measured tone might make “The Broken Heart of America” more persuasive for readers who don’t already share Johnson’s views, but there’s no denying his moral passion, or the terrible history that inflames it.
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for the Washington Post.
The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States
By Walter Johnson
Basic, 544 pages, $35.00