Mystery man in Missouri State Capitol mural identified

Mystery man in Missouri State Capitol mural identified
Posted at 8:24 AM, Apr 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-16 09:24:19-04

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The identity of a black man painted in famed artist Thomas Hart Benton's mural inside the Missouri State Capitol has been uncovered after decades of mystery and speculation.

Experts on Benton and his 1936 mural, "Social History of the State of Missouri," hadn't been able to identify the only black man depicted in a crowd of white people during a political speech, the Kansas City Star reported.

The mysterious man wearing a white hat is shown leaning against a tree, listening intently to the speech of Benton's own father, U.S. Rep. Maecenas Benton. Another black man is being lynched in the background of the mural.

The man has been so difficult to identify because even Benton couldn't remember his name. He called him "Mr. Sharkey."

On Monday, retired Missouri University professor James Bogan published his findings after several years of on-and-off research over the man's identity.

Bogan determined that the man was St. Louis black politico Jordan W. Chambers, a powerful leader in the city and national politics more than 30 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"He is a really fascinating character," Bogan said. "He is an old-time political boss who fed people during the Depression, found them jobs, stuck up for civil rights. When he was 19, he wrote a letter to (American labor leader) Samuel Gompers asking, 'How do I start a union?'"

Chambers is credited for delivering the black vote that helped Harry S. Truman win the presidency.

It was Benton's story about the mural, some of which is noted in his memoir, which led Bogan to the conclusion. He said the primary clues were that the man was from St. Louis and known to get out the vote.

No one was more well-known in that regard than Chambers, said Bogan.

Beyond his face bearing resemblance, the white hat also pointed to Chambers, his prime headgear.

"You always want to know who the people are in the mural," said Bob Priddy, president of the State Historical Society of Missouri. "This is really a key figure. Benton was looking to show the African-American people in Missouri."

"They were in the political system, but not of the system," he said. "Part of it, but not."