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The Hidden Truths of The Arch’s Construction
November 29, 2021
As Percy Green dangled from the Gateway Arch to protest the exclusion of black workers from the construction, a policeman attempted to talk him down.
Percy Green, a St. Louis raised social worker and black activist, protested the exclusion of black workers from federal contracts and jobs related to the construction of the Arch. President Lyndon B Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, the Arch protest was led by similar picketing of The Jefferson Bank and Trust in 1963, to convince the bank to hire black people for white-collar jobs.
To understand Green’s protest, one must understand the basic history behind the construction of the Arch. How did the Arch come to be, and why is it important for us to understand its history.
The arch was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1947, for a nationwide competition in 1948. Saarinen is also well known for designing the Washington Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C., and the TWA Flight Center in New York City. “He was an architect and didn’t live a very long life,” said park ranger Jenny Burney. “He was born in 1910 and died in 1961 before the Arch was completed.”
In terms of shape, most people had designs similar to the Washington Monument, but Saarinen’s stood out the most. “His was so unique and different from anybody else’s design,” said Burney. “It makes a shape of a gateway and [St. Louis] is the gateway to the west,” she added.
St. Louis is well known for some of its history, especially before the rise of tall office buildings, parks, downtown apartments, and public transportation. “All the pioneers came through here, and Lewis and Clark started their core of discovery through here,” said Burney. Named after one of the explorers, Lieutenant William Clark, the Clark Bridge carrying US 67 was built a few miles north of St. Louis, in West Alton, Missouri, and connecting Alton, Illinois.
“The Louisiana Purchase was [also] made here,” said Burney. Both Lewis and Clark did their expedition so that they could explore the Louisiana Purchase and wander the Pacific Northwest, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Before the Arch was the outstanding symbol that it is today, the land simply consisted of a town.
“The area that is now the Arch was the world’s largest public parking lot for about 25 years, and before that, it was a 30-block mixed-use district with commercial, industrial, and a smaller proportion of apartments,” said Clayton High School history teacher Daniel Glossenger.
“The residential displacement for the Arch was relatively small compared to other larger renewal efforts in the 20th century. The majority of people in the area were renters, and absentee landlords and low-quality apartments were a problem in the area in the 1920s and 1930s”.
The residential displacement for the Arch was relatively small compared to other larger renewal efforts in the 20th century. The majority of people in the area were renters, and absentee landlords and low-quality apartments were a problem in the area in the 1920s and 1930s
— Daniel Glossenger
On October 9, 1939, mayor Bernard F. Dickmann ordered the demolition of the district, eventually creating the largest public parking lot, and later transformed into the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, now called Gateway Arch National Park. This $7.5 million land clearance project needed six years of negotiations and agreements, for the mayor to have a crowbar in his hands. It wasn’t until 26 years later, after the demolition when the last piece of the arch was installed. The demolition of the commercial, the industrial town was somewhat minuscule in comparison to the problems of economic justice.
The building of the Arch displaced far fewer residents than the clearing of Mill Creek Valley in 1954, for example, which displaced over 20,000 people, the majority of whom were black migrants from the South. Mill Creek Valley serves as an example of how many leaders in the 1950s believed that sweeping decaying neighborhoods would solve post-war problems.
“The building of the Arch– separate from the demolitions, which happened 25 years earlier– didn’t dramatically change race relations in the area. There were some protests by ACTION and Percy Green that related to economic justice, and in particular, getting Black men jobs on the site. But aside from raising the profile of economic justice, there weren’t major shifts that can be attributed to the construction itself,” said Glossenger.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Green said that “MacDonald (president of MacDonald Construction Company), seemed to feel there weren’t any qualified blacks to be employed. We felt that was the typical mindset of most of the businesses when we began to talk to them about jobs. And, mind you, the military was full of blacks, and blacks were operating all types of equipment, including construction equipment.”
Green, accompanied by Dick Daly, a white college student, decided to climb the Arch in protest, climbing up to 125 feet.
“They sent a policeman up. There was an elevator up the side of the Arch. They had a policeman try to talk us down. He said, ‘You all have made your point, now it’s time to end this demonstration.’ We didn’t listen to him,” said Green. After being arrested for climbing the Arch, Green stressed that he was not just going to walk to jail.
“I didn’t feel that the crime I committed was a greater crime than was committed by builders of the Arch in that they were discriminating against blacks in terms of employment and doing contractual work. The moment they said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ I went limp,” said Green.
“We wanted to show that black males were being discriminated against. The system was destroying the family fabric. If the companies were going to discriminate against black males, eliminating them from the possibility of making decent salaries, then they were destroying the family unit,” said Green. There was a whole community in the 47 blocks demolished.
There is always a story behind a demolition, and when we begin to pay attention to those stories, we can find truth in how people were really treated. Percy Green’s story not only highlights the discrimination of black workers in the construction of the Arch, but also the tokenization of black people in higher paying jobs.
“Instead, they tokenize the effort. We never had black phone installers or meter readers. Now, you see some. But not to the extent that there should be,” said Green.
The Arch is a very recognizable monument for Saint Louisans, but not many people know the true history behind the arch. It’s recognized as a symbol for the City of St. Louis, the history, and its people as well. Think about how many monuments or places you know have been demolished for a “bigger” and “better” facility. Some of those projects may work to help the community, but some do an immense amount of damage to existing families and communities. As the monument’s 56th anniversary has passed, we must continue to apply the same lens of curiosity to other monuments around us. Every building has a story, it is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.