Art historian James Bogan believes he has solved a mystery – the identity of a pivotal African American figure in Thomas Hart Benton’s 1936 mural in the Missouri State Capitol.
Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri adorns the walls of the Missouri House of Representatives Lounge in Jefferson City. One man, leaning on a tree and listening to a political speech, was the subject of an important story in Benton’s memoir on the mural’s creation, but he has remained anonymous until now.
“In 1992, we released Tom Benton’s Missouri, a documentary about the mural, and the identity of the mystery man defied our research at the time,” said Bogan, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of art history and film at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “When I retired a few years ago, I returned to what amounted to an art historical cold case file on a missing person.”
Benton’s memoir tells a story of former Missouri Gov. Guy Park calling the artist into his office and telling him that a St. Louis politician he called the “most important black voter ‘getouter’ in the town” objected to Benton’s portrayal of black people, especially the graphic images depicting slavery.
Benton did not want to erase that piece of Missouri history from the painting. Instead, he showed the politician the mural and explained how he would show the progress of black people in Missouri, overcoming misfortune and rising to political importance. Benton invited him to be the model for a figure, leaning on a tree at a distance. Benton said the man agreed, and the rest of the mural remained unchanged.
Bogan spent the last couple of years combing through historical photos and archives to solve the mystery of the man’s identity. An obituary of Jordan Chambers (1895-1962) fit the profile of Benton’s description of the man. “The obituary calls him the ‘Negro mayor of St. Louis,’ and candidates at all levels of government wanted his support,” Bogan said. “Also, he was noted for wearing a ‘signature’ white Stetson hat, just like the fellow in the mural.”
The man was arguably as politically important as Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.
“This man was described as the boss Pendergast of the time in St. Louis,” said Bob Priddy, president of the State Historical Society of Missouri. “His inclusion in the mural shows he’s working across the state in powerful social and political arenas. The figure is a critical component. It helps us better understand black history in the backdrop of Missouri politics of the time.”
Both Priddy and Benton expert Henry Adams of Case Western Reserve University believe the circumstantial evidence around Bogan’s discovery is strong.
“The inclusion of Jordan Chambers was inadvertently prophetic for Missouri political history in that it was Chambers who delivered the critical vote for Harry Truman for Democratic nomination to the Senate in the 1940,” Bogan said. “Benton did indeed paint the future into his historical mural.”
Download of Bogan’s documentary Tom Benton’s Missouri at http://extension.missouri.edu/tombenton/mr-chambers.aspx.