The St. Louis Arch: A “Spiritual” Project Born Out of White Supremacist Impulses

Erin Monahan
Apr 29 · 7 min read

When I was in eighth grade, I moved from a suburb of Chicago, Illinois to a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. My siblings and I made jokes about cows and cornfields as we drove six hours southwest across man-made state lines. The farmed landscape blurred as we sped down the highway, our thoughts never lingering on the fact that we are colonizers traveling to Osage, Miami, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) territories about to move into a house that sits on land that is not ours.

My parents made sure that one of the first things we did as a family was visit the 630 foot steel arch that stands on the west bank of the Mnisose, (the Mississippi River). A memorial of westward expansion, the St. Louis Arch stands with the intention of honoring Thomas Jefferson and the maneuvering of pioneers, hunters, trappers, frontiersman — all “dedicated patriots” who built the nation we see today. This old-timey, nostalgic, prideful narrative is what was instilled in me throughout public school. It infiltrates the way I was taught to imagine our family’s Irish and German immigrant past, how we connect with each other during 4th of July parties, and how we sit down for Thanksgiving. It informs our performance of “giving thanks.” Growing up, our conversations didn’t acknowledge that we are on stolen land and that Turtle Island is the true name of what we call the “United States.”

When visiting the arch I got that stale feeling of being on a school field trip. I remember feeling distant, but guilty about this distance. I felt like I should have been connecting, but it was uncomfortable and forced. I looked at the black and white pictures of the strange white people in thick, black, gray, and tan clothes and felt nothing. I tried to imagine myself on a ferry in the 1800s going down the river, or moving through the woods as if I was Lewis and Clark. I tried to imagine myself a “pioneer.” Because that is what you’re supposed to do. That’s how we are taught to connect.

This feeling reminds me of first grade. It was “Pioneer Day” and we all had to dress like we were characters in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie.” We spent the day with the lights off and ate our cold lunches that we carried to school in a paper bag. No Lisa Frank or Spiderman lunch boxes were allowed that day. I think the intent was to teach us to be grateful for our modern amenities and for us to acknowledge what life was like “back then” — the sacrifices that were made for us to be where we are today. But there was no discussion about colonization, and how it’s ongoing. No mention of how many people to this day, in our “modern” time, are living without clean running water or electricity even in our “first” world. This was only one of many memories I have of my indoctrination into the myth of “manifest destiny “and the “The American Dream.”

Before going up to top of the Arch, my family and I visited the museum. It contained various themes: “Colonial St. Louis,” “Jefferson’s Vision,” “New Frontiers,” “The Riverfront Era,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Building the Dream.” Colonial. Vision. Frontiers. Destiny. Dream. These words have new and darker meanings for me now at twenty-nine years old, now that I am seeking to learn about the true history of this country through the teachings of Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike, through information I have learned from Zarna Joshi of Women of Color Speak Out, and through the continuous education granted by Ericka Hart and Ebony of the podcast “From Hoodrat to Headwrap,” (only a few of the incredible resources I have found that shed light on how structures of oppression look today in 2019).

I walk past a statue of an arrogantly-postured Jefferson, and hover over the plaques that talk with automated narration when you push the red button. I found out that Luther Ely Smith is the guy who came up with the idea of building the Arch. Smith is described as a “soft-spoken man who got things done,” a “do-gooder” who fought for the “little man” and “dreamed big dreams for his community.” He was a lawyer who participated in the Spanish-American War and came out a lieutenant. He liked the “great outdoors” and bird-watching. So, basically Luther Ely Smith was your average fuck boy/bro.

Smith really wanted this arch to be built. He had to dedicate a lot of his time to convincing folks it was a good idea, but he didn’t have to work that hard. He had some things going for him, primarily the fact that he was a cis white male with money and connections. So, he formed a non-profit, a move that transitioned him from “fuck boy” to “soft boy.” He became the president of this non-profit called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association (JNEMA) — bros love the word “expansion” — and his friend, Mayor Bernard Dickmann (a fitting name) became vice president of course, because that’s how all historical Good Old Boys clubs start: you put your ego aside like the selfless philanthropist you are, and invite your friends to hoard power and money alongside you.

The estimated cost of the Arch was $30 million, for development, planning, and this also included the cost of purchasing the stolen land. Luther Ely Smith is literally described as a “good man” in his obituary that was published in the Globe-Democrat. But everything about Smith signals non-consensual force as his actions to build this Arch meant he had to ignore the vast amount of people who were against the construction. Building the arch in the exact spot that Smith envisioned required tearing down one of St. Louis’ oldest neighborhoods. This story is written about so delicately and apologetically by most journalists — they are careful to not put blame on St. Louis, though we need to hold the city and government accountable. Reparations can and must be made to not only the Black communities who still face redlining and access to resources to this day because of actions springing from white supremacy starting with slavery, but also to the Indigenous communities who we have displaced from their homelands and forced onto reservations since we first stepped foot on Turtle Island.

We can’t excuse our violent behavior by saying “we thought we were doing the right thing” because white people to this day benefit from these violent actions of founders, CEOs, and presidents past who made decisions that come at a great cost for Black folx, Indigenous folx, and communities of color. This is truly one of the earliest forms of gentrification where Black communities are ravaged because of one white man’s greed and haste for building what he considered a “spiritual” vision. Why do we prioritize a white man’s vision over the lives, well-being, and stability of whole communities of people? Smith was described by his granddaughter as “never taking no as an answer” and this is the problem with toxic masculinity — the way it blinds men in power from empathy.

Luther Ely Smith didn’t care to think about the people who were impacted by his violent actions. And this continues to this day. How do we veil our white greed with the excuse of good intentions for “doing the right thing”? How do we block ourselves from empathy today in 2019? What else do we consider a “patriotic accomplishment” in honor of memorializing “manifest destiny”? What does it mean that a 30 million dollar monument can be called a “spiritual” symbol while actively decimating 37 city blocks full of businesses, community centers, and homes?

When we talk about “urban revitalization” who or what are we actually “saving” or “revitalizing” and who or what are we wiping out, demolishing, or killing? Why doesn’t the great American Dream include everyone? Why is the impact always exclusive and either/or? These are rhetorical questions because the American Dream is the biggest lie that was never designed to include everyone. It has always been exclusive by design, otherwise, people like Luther Ely Smith and his friend Dickwad wouldn’t be able to hoard mass amounts of wealth.

It has always been time to redistribute power and wealth and people have been talking about this for centuries, like Ta-Nehisi Coates does in his piece published in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” We white people have committed theft from Indigenous and black communities. Those of us who are white need to heal from the intergenerational trauma of causing this much violence, we need to hold ourselves accountable for how we continue the projects of our ancestors — this violent legacy we continue to uphold. We have a choice to stop it. It can end with us if we want it to.

Ideally, I would like to live in a world where we all have the basic respect to honor each other’s existence. Smith looked at the riverfront and didn’t see homes, businesses, communities. He didn’t register the humanity of the people living there. He only saw and felt his white supremacist impulse to control and infiltrate, an impulse thinly veiled by journalists and others who are indoctrinated into the myth of the American Dream as a memorial of “patriotic” “progress.” “Progress” in this way means ripping apart, tearing down, and raping what is already there. To stop this violent legacy we need to honor everyone’s humanity and existence. This means not calling the cops on people just living their lives. This means resisting our white supremacist impulse to control and infiltrate any space we want to take over at all costs, whether in a grocery store, office, or construction site. Because this phenomenon crosses into every facet of our lives. We need to reconsider what we mean when we describe our ancestors, and ourselves, as “good.”

Erin Monahan

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Writer/Facilitator Focused on Dismantling White Supremacy/Founder of Terra Incognita Media