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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Why a painting of white sunbathers still haunts St. Petersburg's City Hall



In 1966, a young African-American activist marched into City Hall and ripped away a mural that showed black troubadours playing for white sunbathers. He served two years in prison for the incident. 

This week, that man, Omali Yeshitela, now 74, is no less angry. 

Standing in front of City Hall Wednesday, he vowed to do the same again if a planned replacement is similarly offensive. 

Yeshitela, who legally changed his name from Joe Waller in 2000, is upset at plans by the city's public arts commission to fill the space of the piece he so despised.  

"They are talking about offering $10,000 to any artist...that can replace that mural with another mural that reflects the events of the time and that shows the progress and inclusivity that has occurred in this city since that time," he said. "How can they do that without talking to me? I tore it down."  

Yeshitela, founder of the controversial International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement and a former mayoral candidate, said contemporary leaders are repeating the actions of those who permitted the mural to be installed in the 1940's. 

"They have decided they are going to determine an image that reflects black people," he said. "If they put it up and I'm around, I will tear it down again." 

The mural Yeshitela tore down was the work of George Snow Hill, a painter, sculptor and muralist who was 70 when he died in St. Petersburg in 1969. Some of his work can still be seen at City Hall, showing visitors enjoying what was then the Municipal Pier. 

Yeshitela ripped down the companion piece that had hung in City Hall since 1945. He served two years in prison on felony theft charges for the Dec. 29, 1966, incident. In 2000, his rights were restored by Gov. Jeb Bush.  

As he stood before City Hall on Wednesday, Yeshitela said he had not seen any progress in St. Petersburg's black community and added that its people should be the ones to determine how they are represented. 

That should not be determined by "this government and not even black people who work with this government," he said. 

Kevin King, Mayor Rick Kriseman's chief of staff, who stood nearby, said Yeshitela might be "a little confused," about what is being done. 

"This is a public initiative, not a City Hall initiative," King said, adding that Kriseman is supportive of the public and what the city's public arts commission and its subcommittee decides. 

The subcommittee includes well-known African-American residents such as Bob Devin Jones, who is the artistic director at Studio@620, Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, and Terri Lipsey Scott, director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson 
African American Museum.  

Jones said the original request for proposals that sought artists for the project is being amended to substantially increase the $10,000 initially set aside for the project. New guidelines would include Yeshitelain the process, he said. 

"I know that we are going to invite him to speak to the public arts commission. He had not been included initially. We see that omission. We are definitely going to invite him to hear his thoughts," Jones said. 

"We realize that this has an antecedent that is very sensitive and that's why we pushed the pause button and we're looking at other options." 

[Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:18pm]


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