Jordan Chambers: The Negro Mayor of St. Louis

13, April 2017
Scan of a copy of Jordan Chambers photo from his obituaryPhoto of Jordan Chambers from his August 11, 1962, obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Missouri History Museum.

In 1931 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch referred to Jordan Chambers, who held no official political office, as the Negro Mayor of St. Louis. Chambers was larger than life, a political power broker whose influence was far reaching. It was said that little happened in St. Louis politics—or in the black community in general—that Chambers didn’t somehow have a hand in. The fact that he was able to amass such power and influence at a time when African Americans faced considerable barriers is a testament not only to his political genius but also to his considerable savvy and charisma. 

Chambers was born in Tennessee in 1895, moving with his family to St. Louis when he was just a year old. He attended Sumner High School but left before graduation to hold a series of jobs. While working as a railway car cleaner, he helped organize his fellow black workers into a union some 1,100 members strong in order to challenge racial disparities in pay, an early indication of both his concern with injustice and his leadership abilities.

His first foray into politics came in 1925, when he successfully managed the campaign of Republican mayoral candidate Victor Miller in the city’s black wards. Switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chambers steadily built a powerful organization that spread from his 19th Ward base to encompass most of the city’s black wards. By the 1940s, black and white political hopefuls on the local and state levels were courting Chambers. National leaders had their eyes on him too: Adam Clayton Powell, a New York congressman, called Chambers the “greatest politician of all time.”

When it comes to civil rights in St. Louis, Chambers was strongly committed to achieving political and economic justice for blacks, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist. As his biographer argues, Chambers saw civil rights as “an individual thing” and largely avoided direct-action protests and noisy public confrontations. Because he was inside the political system, he opted to fight for "jobs and security" for African Americans from that angle, leveraging his tremendous clout as he did so. From his perch at the popular nightspot he operated, Club Riviera, Chambers held court, strategizing and forming relationships with leaders of all stripes, including civil rights leaders.

One direct action he did take involved the 1940s March on Washington Movement (MOWM). Along with civil rights giants T. D. McNeal and David Grant, Chambers was a key figure in MOWM and its protest against job discrimination in St. Louis companies with defense contracts. He was also particularly close with George Vaughn, the attorney who argued the Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case. 

Black-and-white photo of Jordan Chambers, David Grant, and T.D. McNealJordan Chambers (left, with cigar), David Grant (center, without tie), and T. D. McNeal (right), 1942. Image courtesy of the Charles Bannister Photograph Collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

By the time Chambers died in 1962, he had acquired yet another title: the Father of black politics in St. Louis. More than 2,600 people attended his last rites at St. Paul A. M. E. Church, and three funerals were held to accommodate the throngs of mourners, from the celebrated figures to the everyday people he aided during his four decades of public service.

The St. Louis American probably made the most balanced assessment of his legacy shortly after his death. As the paper put it, Chambers wasn’t a “Negro Moses,” but he was “a god-send to St. Louis” who increased the power and influence of blacks in politics.

For former congressman William Clay, who had been chided by Chambers during his first meeting with the political powerhouse due to his aggressive civil rights activities, he was the undisputed black political leader: “glorified while alive, canonized since, and . . . deified by young politicians.”

Black-and-white scan of portion of MOWM program from August 14, 1942Photo of the March on Washington Movement's executive committee, 1942. Jordan Chambers is the second person from the right in the front row. Missouri History Museum.

—Gwen Moore, Curator of Urban Landscape and Community Identity

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