Mystery Man in Benton’s Missouri Mural Identified 

 

                                                                     An Essay by James Bogan

                                                                     Missouri University of Science and Technology

 

Figure 1 Godsey’s 1936 Photograph

Thomas Hart Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri, completed in 1936, is the most ambitious mural by the foremost American muralist of the twentieth century (fig. 1). His gigantic work, covering the walls of the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol, bears comparison with the frescos of Diego Rivera--and sends us right back to Michelangelo. Hundreds of characters inhabit the mural, many of them identifiable, including Tom’s brother Nat arguing a case before a stoic jury. Capitol janitor Rotha Williams is portrayed as Jim in the Huckleberry Finn panel. Harold Brown, Jr., who was to become the proprietor of the Zesto drive-in in Jefferson City, is depicted as the bare-bottomed baby.[1]  As part of his preparation for the mural, Benton had done hundreds of sketches, gathering likenesses for the denizens of his painting on a six-month road trip around the state. Most of those enshrined remain anonymous despite their pictorial fame.

One character in particular deserves further investigation: the black man leaning against a tree at the edge of the political rally where Benton’s father, Macenas, is represented declaiming a speech (fig. 2).  The story of how this heretofore unidentified man got his likeness up on the wall is recounted in Benton’s unpublished autobiography, an excerpt of which, “The Thirties,” is included in Bob Priddy’s comprehensive study of the mural, Only the Rivers Are Peaceful.[2]

(Figure 2)

Here is Benton’s account:

 

     In one small section of the work, which dealt with the past history of Missouri, I had depicted a group of black slaves working under the whip of an overseer in some primitive lead works. A Negro political faction in St. Louis took offense at this representation and sent a delegation to the governor asking to have it effaced. The governor, an old fellow named Guy Park, politically close to the Pendergast organization of Kansas City, had become a friend and admirer of my father’s way back in the days when my father had been United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. Because of this I had got along famously with Governor Guy while working in the Capitol. He came in every few days to look at the progress of my mural and often invited me to his office for an after work sip of bourbon. The day that the St. Louis delegation put its request before him, he called me to his office and told me about it. “Tom,” he said, “this business puts me in a jam. I don’t like to ask this of you but I think you’ll have to change that part of your picture.”  

     “Governor,” I told him, “my contract calls for a ‘Social History of Missouri.’ “Isn’t that lead mine episode a social fact? Isn’t it true to history?”

     “Tom,” he came back with, “that’s right. And according to your contract I can’t make you take it out. But you’ll be smart if you do. These St. Louis blacks are very important to our organization in the Eastern part of the State for the coming election [Roosevelt vs. Landon--1936]. It was our organization that gave you this ‘muriel’ job and you can do it a little favor like I’m asking for in return. Be good for your future anyhow.” I had a quick realization of what I was up against if I made a change in response to this political pressure I might start a chain of other such pressures asking for similar responses and my whole mural concept would be ruined. Who could guess what might come up in politically motivated minds?   Almost as soon, however, as these fears hit me a hopeful idea eased them back a little.

     “Governor,” I asked, “how important is the leader of this St. Louis crowd?”

     “The most important black vote ‘getouter’ in the town,” he replied “and he knows it. Plumb full of himself. That’s why this business is touchy.”

     “Could I meet him?” I asked. “And talk with him by myself?”

     “Why yes, Tom,” said the governor, and he opened the door to his reception room and beckoned in a burly, flashily dressed Negro as Mr. Sharkey, the ‘St. Louis leader.’ I said to him, “Governor Park has told me about your complaint and I can see that it’s reasonable. But there’s a side to it you don’t know about. Have your seen the painting?” “No,” he answered, “but what I’ve been told is enough.” “Well, let’s go look at it,” I said. “I want your advice about that part of it I said you didn’t know about.”

     Remembering a saying of my Father’s, “If you want a feller to help you, make him feel important,” I continued: “You may be just the man to solve a problem that’s been bothering me.” Bowing to the governor and asking his group to wait a minute, Mr. Sharkey followed me to my painting. 

     I was at the moment working on a representation of an old-fashioned outdoor Missouri political meeting, where my father, as speaker, addressed a country town audience. Standing as a listener in a very prominent position was a figure for which I had not yet found an appropriate face. I pointed out this figure and said, “Mr. Sharkey, I’ve been looking for a face of a prominent politician of your race for this figure. I want to show the progress of Missouri’s colored people from their unhappy beginnings, shown by the lead mine scene, to their present position of political importance in the State. The lead mine scene is a bad part of our history, I’ll admit, but it’s necessary to show how the colored people overcame their misfortunes and rose up to the position of power that you represent. How about my putting your face on that figure? You’ll be up there on this State House wall as a permanent record of the colored man’s accomplishments in our state.”

     “Why, Mister Artist,” he replied, “I think that would be all right.”

     I made a quick but accurate drawing of him (fig. 3). “Bring your delegation here anytime after ten in the morning and you’ll see yourself up there,” I said.

             

                                                                                  (Figure 3)            

     The next day he and his friends came and whispered and chuckled to see his image standing out so prominently in the big painting (fig. 4). That ended the one and only protest I had to consider while the mural was in process.Figure 4 Tom Benton mural

     In the afternoon Governor Guy called me in for a highball. “They say you are an artist, Tom,” he laughed, “but you’re a better politician.” A somewhat dubious compliment, but I received it with much satisfaction because it meant I was free again.[3]

In this anecdote, written with all the vividness of his picturesque prose, Benton identifies the man as “Mr. Sharkey” and Governor Park further notes that the fellow is “the most important black vote ‘getouter’ in the town” of St. Louis. The problem is that an examination of contemporary newspapers and histories yields no “Mr. Sharkey” involved in St. Louis politics, white or black. It certainly was not Charles E. Sharkey, attorney for a trolley company in Alton, Illinois, who died in 1934.[4]

 

Here is what I think happened. Benton wrote up his “Unpublished Memoir” some thirty years after the event. He recalled the incident’s details accurately as confirmed by Townsend Godsey, Associated Press photographer at the time.[5] But he forgot the name of his model. Now Benton was a Kansas City man, familiar enough with Jackson County politics for sure. St. Louis was another bailiwick. My guess is that he simply forgot the identity of the fellow Governor Park foisted off on him and he tags him as “Mr. Sharkey.” Who knows, maybe the combative personality of Jack Sharkey, heavy weight boxing champ in 1932, influenced his choice of an alias? Actually Benton admits his ignorance in a footnote to his essay: “A fictitious name. I’ve forgotten his real one though it could be ascertained by looking up St. Louis political records and checking these with his portraits.”[6]     So, if the black man leaning against the tree is not “Mr. Sharkey,” who is he? Who fits the profile of the “best black ‘voter getouter’” in 1936 in St. Louis? My nominee is Jordan W. Chambers. Here is a condensed version of his obituary, which makes the case:

 

St. Louis Post Dispatch, August 11, 1962

     Jordan W. Chambers, widely known and influential St. Louis Negro Democratic leader, died early today of a heart ailment at Firmin Desloge Hospital after a brief illness.

     Mr. Chambers, 65 years old, was committeeman of the Nineteenth ward and was the oldest member in point of service on the Democratic City Committee, having served continuously since 1938.

     Known in political circles as the “Negro mayor of St. Louis,” Mr. Chambers was regarded as the most influential leader in the Negro community. His support was avidly sought by candidates at all levels of government, ranging from United States Senator to Governor to magistrate.

Switched Parties

     A former Republican, Mr. Chambers managed the 1929 campaign of the late Republican Mayor Victor J. Miller in the city’s Negro wards. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the G.O.P. nomination for constable in 1931 in a close race. He switched to the Democratic Party, as did many other Negro leaders, in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected President.

     In his 43 years of political activity, Mr. Chambers fought vigorously for the advancement of civil rights. He frequently clashed with fellow Democratic leaders when they were dilatory in carrying out campaign pledges or party platform promises for progress in his field.

     Mr. Chambers was a hard-working and efficient organization man. He developed a strong political organization in the Nineteenth ward, building from the grass roots and was able to produce top-heavy majorities for candidates he favored. His ward at one time had 14,000 voters….

     Because of his ability to deliver votes from his own and other St. Louis Negro wards, Mr. Chambers was prominent in state as well as local politics. He served as a Missouri delegate to Democratic national conventions many times.

     Mr. Chambers sometimes backed losing candidates. But party leaders said he never went back on his word after he had promised a candidate his support.

Wore Large White Hat

     Mr. Chambers was a familiar figure at city, state and national political meetings. He always wore a large white Stetson hat and a black string tie, and puffed a large pipe filled with highly scented tobacco.

     Mr. Chambers who was born in Tennessee, came to St. Louis with his parents when a youth. For years he operated the Riviera night club at 4400 Delmar Boulevard, a gathering place for politicians, and the Peoples undertaking establishment, 3100 Franklin Avenue.

                                            

A telling detail is Chambers’ signature “Stetson hat.” In the preliminary sketch of the mural, the figure leaning against the tree is clearly a white man. The final version shows the portly black man, sporting a white Stetson hat. A photograph from 1941 shows Chambers holding his white Stetson. The photo also confirms the similarity in facial appearance, though not caught from the same angle (fig. 5).

 

(Figure 5)

George Vaughn interviews Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Standing left to right: Mayor Bernard Dickman, Frederick Weathers, Jordan W. Chambers, and Robert Hannegan.  Chambers is clearly at the center of political power, allied as he is with two mayors, two prominent black politicians, and a political operative (Hannegan).

 

Jordan Chambers also fits the profile as he was the most effective ‘vote getouter’ in St. Louis, as noted by Governor Park.  The Post-Dispatch referred to him as the “Negro mayor of St. Louis.” An article by Mary Welek in the Journal of Negro History (1972) outlines his pivotal position in the community: in the Roosevelt / Landon race that was coming up in a few months in November of 1936, Jordan Chambers delivered the vote heavily in favor of Roosevelt. Jordan Chambers was in the vanguard of a new force, a realignment of black voters. He himself had switched from the Republican Party after Hoover. Chambers became a Democratic Party strong man, a boss.  He knew how to gather and wield power. He knew how to feed a depression starved populace.  He lobbied in this very House Lounge for jobs for his supporters.[7] 

 

 

(Figure 6)

 

The original figure leaning against the tree looks like a cousin of Colonel Sanders (fig. 6).  The substitution of the black man strengthens the mural as a whole. On the speakers’ platform is the white establishment. Benton’s father, Macenas, delivers a firery speach for the Democratic contender for president in 1912, Champ Clark, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a Missourian. The nomination later went to Woodrow Wilson.  Behind him on the platform in total anachronism is Means Ray, the current Mayor of Jefferson City, and Governor Park.[8]  An all-white crowd listens to the speech with attitudes from rapt to bored. Separated by a telling space, at the margin of the scene, leaning up against a tree, is the black man in the Stetson hat. His attitude is detached, sardonic even. He is clearly skeptical of whatever promises are being spouted.

 

Adding to the thematic richness of the mural is the contrast of the Chambers figure to that of Boss Pendergast, another prodigious ‘vote getouter.’ Pendergast holds the foreground, like a prince in a Renaissance mural, dominating the establishment clique of the Kansas City panel, whereas Chambers holds his own out on the edge of the town rally.

 

(Figure 7)

 

Furthermore, as Henry Adams points out, the figure is in strong diagonal placement below the silhouetted lynched man who hangs from a bare tree adjacent to the Civil War scene (fig. 7).[9] The lynched man doubles as a reference to both the atrocities of the Civil War era and to the unsuccessful effort to pass a federal anti-lynching bill during the time Benton was working on the mural.  No wonder the black man has a sardonic look on his face.

 

It can be argued that the inclusion of Chambers has a touch of the prophetic, however inadvertent. In 1936 he was elected constable and Democratic committeeman of the Nineteenth Ward, the first black Democratic Committeeman in St. Louis.[10] Chambers was credited with getting out the black vote for Harry Truman in several close elections.  A few years after the mural’s completion, it was Jordan Chambers who delivered the Democratic nomination for the senate to Truman in the primary of 1940. Truman beat Governor Stark by only 8133 votes out of 655,953 cast.[11] “Truman won that primary by less than 9000 votes, the exact number of votes he got from the Negro wards,” notes journalist Ralph G. Martin.  “Chambers got him more than 2,500 in the nineteenth ward alone, carried every predominantly Negro ward by 2-1… Truman went on to win the Senate race against Republican Manvel H. Davis. Truman won more Negro votes in St. Louis than FDR did.[12] Chambers delivered.

 

Years later, in the early sixties, Benton painted the Independence and the Opening of the West mural at the Truman Presidential Library. I wonder whether he and Harry Truman--bolstered by some bourbon--ever conversed about the 1940 election and the black politician with the Stetson hat from St. Louis who put him over the top.

        

Jordan Chambers’ activities in the North St. Louis community gained him various titles: ward committeeman, constable, and the affectionate: “Pops,” for a man who took care of his people. Martin in The Bosses relates how Chambers came by that title:

 

     The editor Howard Woods of the St. Louis Argus called him ‘a one man community chest.’ That’s when people started calling Chambers, ‘Pops.’ ‘Anybody with a sad story, and they’re all sad,’ said Patrolman William Abernathy, ‘if he went to Pops and waited long enough, he got the money. Tough on the outside, soft on the inside, that’s Pops. I guess he must have loaned out about $50,000 without taking any IOU’s. He’ll never get it back and he knows it.’[13]

 

Jordan Chambers was a man of many parts. As Welek writes, “He always paid his own bills—in cash…. He lived lavishly, sporting expensive cigars, a diamond ring and stick pin, and a Cadillac—which he drove himself. He owned three race horses and a prize fighter…. Chambers had a commanding presence—he stood over six feet tall with broad shoulders, and his oversized white hat added to his impressiveness.”[14]

 

His business interest in the Franklin Funeral Parlor in North St. Louis connected him fundamentally to the community. Ann Morris, writing in the Dictionary of Missouri Biography details a venture at the other end of the spectrum:

 

     Beginning in the early 1940s Chambers owned and operated the Club Riviera in St. Louis. For more than fifteen years the nightclub was one of the hottest spots in the country (fig.8). Movie stars and politicians came, the audience was always integrated, and the tips were handsome. It was a large club filled with linen-covered tables and had a balcony with tables. The far end featured a stage for the orchestra and a large dance floor. There were two shows nightly and three on Sundays. Customers paid admission and brought their own liquor while the club sold setups, sodas, and food. Chambers booked performers at the peak of their careers. Popular entertainers at the Riviera included George Shearing, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, William “Count” Basie, Frankie Lane, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Cozy Cole, Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, and Erskine Hawkins. In 1952 Josephine Baker performed at the Club Riviera after her big homecoming show at Kiel Auditorium to benefit the St. Louis School District and to promote integration.[15]

His success as a politician was based on the age-old style of providing food, shelter, and jobs, and for good measure, throw in a world-class nightclub and a dignified funeral home.

 

(Figure 8)

                                                                                                  

The day Jordan Chambers showed up at the Missouri State Capitol in the summer of 1936 was a propitious one for Benton’s great mural. Benton traded up when he swapped out the gaunt white citizen for Jordan Chambers. His presence enriches the social fabric of the mural. By literally showing the marginalization of African Americans, he realistically portrays an enduring strain in Missouri history.

We are left with one question: If Jordan Chambers did indeed model for the figure in the mural, why do we not know it?  Why did not Chambers crow a bit and say, “Hey, that’s me up there!” One factor is, of course, Benton’s fabrication of “Mr. Sharkey.” U.S. Congressman William Clay represented Missouri’s First District from 1968 until 2000, which included Chamber’s old nineteenth Ward. I asked him what he thought about how Chamber’s identity slipped through the cracks. He had two points to make. “Well, in general people don’t care about history, and in particular black history.” Secondly, as to why Chambers did not brag about it: “He was not much for self-promotion or personal publicity.  He was more interested in working behind the scenes and getting things done, and letting other people take the glory.  For example, it was Jordan Chambers who delivered the votes that made the difference in electing Harry Truman to the Senate in 1940. Even Boss Pendergast could not match him.  Once in office Senator Truman offered the plum of Recorder of Deeds in Washington DC to Chambers, but the St. Louis ward committeeman preferred to stay put and he passed on the job to Oliver Thornton.”[16]

 

Eventually Jordan Chambers was honored by name with a Post Office and a park in North St. Louis and now his name can be added to the list of Missourians who grace the walls of the House Lounge in Jefferson City.

 

 

*******************************

 

Endnotes

 

The author would like to thank Tim O’Neil and Jesse Bogan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for leads, Professor Patrick Huber, Renee Williams and Kurt Pritchett of the Missouri S&T for editorial assistance, Steve Sitton of the T.H. Benton Home State Historic Site, Kenneth Thomas of the State Historical Society of Missouri - St. Louis Research Center, Fred Goss, Ellen Pearce, Anna Monders, Clint McMillen, Katherine Foran, John Woodfin, Frank Fillo, and Michael Hicks also gave welcome assistance.

 

Any further stories about Jordan Chambers and Thomas Hart Benton would be of great interest to the author. Please contact jbogan@mst.edu

                                      


[1] Bob Priddy, Only the Rivers Are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Mural  (Independence Press, 1989), 48-50.

 

[2] Ibid., 219-262.

 

[3] Ibid., 254-256.

 

[4] Necrologies  (Missouri Historical Society), v. 17, 92.

 

[5] Townsend Godsey, photographer for the Associated Press, corroborates Benton’s account in the documentary film, Tom Benton’s Missouri, directed by James Bogan and Frank Fillo (University of Missouri, 1992, DVD).

 

[6]Priddy, 262.

 

[7] Mary Welek, “Jordan Chambers: Black Politician and Boss,” Journal of Negro History vol. 57, no. 4 (October 1972): 352-369.

 

[8] Priddy, 52.

 

[9] Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton:  Discoveries and Interpretations (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015), 29.

 

[10] Ann Morris, “Jordan Webster Chambers (1898-1962),” Dictionary of Missouri Biography, ed. Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 160-161.

 

[11] United States Senate Election in Missouri, 1940, Wikipedia.

 

[12] The Bosses (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964), 281-282.

 

[13] Ibid., p. 282.

 

[14] Welek, 366-368

 

[15] Morris, 161.

 

[16] Telephone interview with U.S. Congressman William Clay, April 24, 2017.

 

FIGURES

1. Photograph by Townsend Godsey, 1936. Courtesy of Missouri State Parks/Thomas Hart Benton Home State Historic Site.

2. Social History of the State of Missouri.

3. Sketch, Thomas Hart Benton Testamentary Trust, 1935.

4. Detail from Social History of the State of Missouri.

5. Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri—St. Louis Research Center, Ernest Calloway Papers, S0540_468.

6. Grid drawing, Thomas Hart Benton Testamentary Trust, 1935. Detail from Social History of the State of Missouri.

7. Club Riviera, from the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.