Arch So White

Or, When Politicians Accidentally Tell the Truth

Dignitaries— all White — cut a ribbon to re-open the new Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center (July 3, 2018). Some pictured: Missouri Governor Mike Parson, U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, St. Louis County Chief Executive Steven Stenger, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Source: Mayor Lyda Krewson’s Twitter feed.

All morning I’ve been reading social media posts about a photo from yesterday’s opening of the revamped St. Louis’ Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center— a photo suggesting that only White politicians and dignitaries were invited to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

This, despite the fact that the City of St. Louis is nearly 50% Black, the surrounding county is 25% Black, and there are many, many Black elected officials and leaders who could have been invited to participate: U.S. Congressman William Lacy Clay, Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks, President of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed, St. Louis Chief of Police John Hayden, St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, etc.

But what at first seemed just another colossal failure in political optics, now feels like an inadvertent statement of truth by America’s (and St. Louis’) White political class.

The now-renamed Gateway Arch National Park was created in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt and originally called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Museum.

The Memorial includes land along the Mississippi riverfront and the nearby Old Courthouse, where the 1857 Dred Scott case (which legitimized slavery of Black Americans and asserted Black slaves could never be U.S. citizens) originated.

Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (as seen from Illinois side of Mississippi River). The Old Courthouse is the domed building to the right of the north leg of the Arch.

The now-iconic Gateway Arch was erected by the U.S. federal government in the early-1960s to commemorate the ‘settling’ of land President Thomas Jefferson acquired from the French in 1803 in the “Louisiana Purchase.” That land doubled the size of the United States.

Map showing extent of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Source.

There’s a reason St. Louis is called “Gateway to the West.” White European settlers of the vast expanse of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains passed through St. Louis — on railroads from the East or steamboats from the South — bought necessary provisions in town, and headed west, to settle lands occupied by hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

I hardly need describe the genocide that followed.

The Gateway Arch was designed in 1947 by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect. Its design resembles a similar arch intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the rise of Italian fascism: the never-built “Arch of Triumph” for the 1942 Rome World’s Fair.

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Proposed “Arch of Empire,” for World’s Fair (Rome, 1942) to celebrate 20 years of fascism under Benito Mussolini.

Like that arch, the Gateway Arch’s design was meant to recall the “triumphal arches” Roman generals passed through on their return to Rome after victories on the battlefield (think: Arc de Triomphe in Paris.)

Jean Chalgrin, Arc de Triomphe (built 1806–36), Paris (France). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Gateway Arch occupies land in downtown St. Louis, on the Mississippi riverfront, that was once a thriving African-American neighborhood. Black protesters climbed the Arch in 1964 (while it was under construction) to protest the exclusion of Black workers from the construction crews.

Left: cast-iron storefronts in the downtown STL neighborhood razed to build the Gateway Arch. Right: Land cleared where the Arch now stands.

All of this is to say: St. Louis’ Gateway Arch was intended to honor and celebrate the ‘triumph’ of White settlers over Native Americans in lands (“the Great Plains”) that now comprise about a third of the (lower-48) United States.

It was sited and constructed in a way that prioritized the commemoration of a mythical White past (the “taming of the West”) over the reality of Black residents, business owners, and workers.

And it does so through a design that is White supremacist, militarist, imperialist, (and possibly fascist) in origin.

Thus, the appearance of an all-White group of local, state, and federal officials at yesterday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Arch is regrettable but also entirely appropriate. Honest, even.

And that’s a rare gift in the Time of Trump.

***Tip of the hat to Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks who coined the Twitter hashtag #ArchSoWhite.***

Update (4 July 2018): in response to the shameful all-White ribbon cutting ceremony, the Gateway Arch Park Foundation (which organized the event) issued a barely intelligible (non)apology on its Facebook page. The staff of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation is almost entirely White…

Update (5 July 2018): Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks — in whose district the Gateway Arch lies — organized a People’s Ribbon Cutting ceremony on Friday, July 6, 2018. Other Facebook posts are calling this event the “Black Arch Ribbon Cutting Event.” Either way, it still shows that the Gateway Arch is a symbol of the nation’s and St. Louis’ history of racism, segregation, and racial violence. The Arch is a White supremacist monument (built solely by White people) to America’s racist past — and present. I have no idea why People of Color would want to celebrate the commemoration of that past….but here they are:

Second ribbon cutting at opening of Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center (July 6, 2018). Photo: John Reilly.

Update (6 July 2018): The St. Louis American reports that most Black elected officials in the St. Louis area were NOT invited to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, July 3rd. The one invited (U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay) was unable to attend due to a personal conflict. Conclusion: this was not an accident. It was a failure to intentionally include.

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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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