It was a couple of months before Missouri’s bicentennial, and Mark Rank had an idea.
Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University. He and a friend were biking the cross-state Katy Trail, ending up in Jefferson City, where they planned to take a train back to St. Louis.
It was the middle of June and they were near the Missouri State Capitol. Rank had a couple of hours to kill, and he wanted to see the Thomas Hart Benton murals in the House Lounge. “Seeing his portrayal of the history of Missouri, I thought would be really interesting. I’d always wanted to see them in person,” Rank said.
The work titled “A Social History of Missouri” was commissioned by state lawmakers in 1935 for $16,000. Benton combined Missouri mythology — such as Huckleberry Finn — with its real history, from Jesse James robbing trains, to Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast dominating the state’s political scene, to very real and painful depictions of slavery.
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The murals that take up the entire room were controversial from the beginning, primarily because of Benton’s commitment to telling the full history of Missouri, including its inglorious parts. Here’s how he remembered it, captured in a Missouri Life interview in the 1970s:
“The controversy lasted about six or eight months. If you remember at the time, some of the representatives took advantage of the opportunity to get a little advertising for themselves and wanted to whitewash the whole mural,” Benton said. “You’re always in the middle of controversy, if you’re in the public eye at all. But I don’t think any controversy over any of my work interested the public at large as much as the fuss over the Capitol mural. It was simply because I included the mythology Missouri, its most popular mythology, along with the rest of Missouri life. I thought that was part of the state.”
It’s funny how history repeats itself. Some Missouri Republicans are trying to whitewash history again. Last legislative session, they tried and failed to pass a law that would ban the teaching of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, the brainchild of New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones that retells American history through the prism of slavery.
Republican lawmakers across the country have wrongly suggested that various elements of school curriculum that teach about racial equity are conflated with the concept of critical race theory. They have been on a war to erase American history, trying to make it illegal for schools to teach those parts of it that are ugly.
In his paintings, and not just the ones in Missouri, Benton didn’t shy away from the most difficult parts of American history. A few years ago, some students at Indiana University tried to get the university to cover a mural there that depicts that state’s own racist history, including the Ku Klux Klan’s historic ties to the government. Benton’s painting there makes the important point that journalists helped expose the power of the KKK in that state; but make no mistake, the images are jarring, as is the mural in the Missouri Capitol.
About that mural: When Rank and his friend went to the information desk, they were first told they couldn’t see the painting. “There was not one person in the Capitol except for my friend and I and the guard at the metal detector,” Rank told me. The person at the information desk told Rank and his friend that the House Lounge was locked and they couldn’t see it, that the room was controlled by Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo.
That’s true, Vescovo’s spokesman, Trevor Fox, told me. “Access to the lounge has always been controlled by the speaker,” he said. The speaker’s office is adjacent to the third-floor lounge with the Benton painting. “His office does the schedule for the various events that take place in the room. The tours are then able to work around the scheduled events when access to the room is restricted.”
Indeed, I called the Capitol this week and asked about seeing the mural. I was told the only way to see it is in a guided tour. Rank thinks that’s absurd. “This is a national treasure,” he said. “This is something Missourians should be proud of. We paid for this. This is the people’s house.”
Indeed it is. On the day he visited, the person at the information desk relented and gave him and his friend 5 minutes to see Benton’s historic murals. “I’m glad I got to see them,” he said. “This is the reality of Missouri. And it’s not all good.”