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St. Pete looks to replace racist mural 50-years gone with culturally significant art

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The city of St. Pete is budgeting $10,000 for a mural that would cover the long blank wall on the left landing of the main stairs in City Hall. The wall was once shrouded in a racist mural created in the 1940’s after City Hall was erected in 1939 using New Deal funds.

In an act of civil disobedience, a young African-American activist named Joe Waller tore the mural down in 1966 after the city refused multiple attempts to remove it. Waller, who now goes by the name of Omali Yeshitela and heads the international Uhuru group based in St. Pete, ultimately spent more than two years in jail for the act.

This isn’t the first time the city has sought to replace the mural. Because of tension involving the history of that space and racial sensitivities, the city has been unsuccessful in gaining majority consent for a new display.

In 1998 a group called the Concerned Citizens Action committee successfully petitioned the city to adopt a resolution directing staff to commission a plaque as an expression of apology to both the African-American community and Yeshitela.

However, dissent among council led to questions of the appropriateness of such a move. Bea Griswold, a City Council member at the time, asked for a more broad conversation about whether or not an apology needed to be directed at Yeshitela. She also thought such a plaque should not be placed in such a prominent location.

Former Mayor Bill Foster who was a City Council member at that time also had reservations. Another council member at the time though, Frank Peterman accused naysayers of playing with semantics” and argued they merely took issue with Yeshitela’s affiliation with the controversial Uhuru group.

The mural depicted a jovial scene set at Pass-a-grille Beach where white park-goers were enjoying music played by black artists who were collecting spare change. Not only did the image depict the African-American music players and dancers as subservient to whites, they were also depicted in the racist stereotype known as black face minstrel.

There faces were so dark features could not be noticed. Only their eyes and lips were lightened. Historically, black face was a depiction in shows in Northern states of African-Americans.

The 50th anniversary of the mural being torn down is this year.

Now the city finally appears to be taking action to remedy to blank scar at City Hall that serves as a reminder to so many of what once covered that space.

“The art must respect the event(s) that caused the still-vacant space where the mural once hung while honoring and celebrating the advances in civil rights and inclusivity in the city today,” the city’s call to artists reads on its website.

The city does not offer any further specifics on design specifications other than the size of the space that must be filled. The mural will occupy a 7-foot by 10-foot section of the stairway.

The selection process is open to professional artists and students. Professional artists must have completed other public commissions, received awards, grants or fellowships within the last five years, have works that appear in major private, corporate of museum collections and have exhibited art in a museum or gallery.

Student artists are not subject to those requirements.

Applications and all pertinent documents listed on the city’s website are due by February 8. Those applications can be hand delivered to City Hall by 5 p.m. on the deadline. Otherwise, they must be postmarked by the deadline.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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