The walls of the Missouri Capitol’s House Lounge showcase a massive 1936 mural with a longtime mystery – the identity of an African-American man attending a state political gathering. There are several unidentified figures in Thomas Hart Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri. But, the man leaning up against a tree in a white Stetson hat caught the attention of retired Missouri S & T professor and art historian James Bogan.
“It aggravated the hell out of me when we couldn’t come up with it (identity). Most of the characters in the mural are anonymous, which Benton did pretty much on purpose,” Bogan tells Missourinet.
He’s been wearing his detective hat intermittently since 1988 trying to solve the cold case about the mystery man portrayed in the colorful work of art that captures Missouri’s rich social history. According to Bogan, Democratic establishment was leading the political function touting Missouri House Speaker Champ Clark, who ran for the Presidential Democratic nomination in 1912. The political figures on stage were Benton’s father, U.S. Rep. Maecenas Eason Benton, then-Jefferson City Mayor Means Ray and then-Missouri Governor Guy Parks.
For years, Bogan has been sifting through newspaper files, microfilm and asking around about the identity of the lone African-American man pictured at the gathering. He contacted a former St. Louis newspaper reporter who knows the history of the local political scene. Bogan tells Missourinet he’s convinced the figure is that of Jordan Chambers – a well-known businessman and political figure in St. Louis in the 1930s.
“I just asked him, who was the best vote getter-outer in St. Louis in the middle 30s. He sent me an obituary of Jordan Chambers,” Bogan says. “The guy’s wearing a white Stetson hat. The Post-Dispatch called him the ‘Negro Mayor of St. Louis’ at the time. There’s just nobody else who fits the profile.”
Chambers, who invested in a funeral home and nightclub in St. Louis, was the first black Democratic Committeeman in the city. He is known for helping Missouri’s own Harry Truman capture black votes in St. Louis in a tight U.S. Senate Democratic primary in 1940.
“He (Truman) won by 4,000 votes out of a half-million cast,” Bogan says.
Truman went on to win the general election by defeating incumbent Republican Roscoe Patterson by nearly 20 points. While in the U.S. Senate, Truman offered Chambers the job as Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C., but Chambers chose to stay put in St. Louis.
Bogan describes the artwork as “Cinerama before there was Cinerama” because Benton painted a moving picture with figures leaping off the walls. It puts the state’s social history on display in different scenes that intertwine with the people who built Missouri, slavery, mythology, Huckleberry Finn and Jesse James.
“I say it’s the greatest painted walls this side of the Sistine Chapel and north of Mexico City. I have had a bar room fight over that in my life and I’m still ready to swing a punch in favor of that conclusion,” Bogan says.
In 1935, the Missouri Legislature commissioned Benton, who grew up in southwest Missouri’s Neosho, for the $16,000 job. The mural that took him two years to complete is considered by many to be Benton’s best work.
Copyright © 2018 · Missourinet