James Vann to paint six murals depicting East Tampa's black history

EAST TAMPA

The city's first black police officers weren't allowed to arrest whites, just detain them. They would line up for roll call and stand in the back of the room. They were assigned to the patrol division where they made up part of a foot patrol since they weren't given patrol cars.

They were 19 men hired between 1947 and 1956.

And they were exposed to racist jokes and excluded from promotions.

As recently as 1971, there was only one black officer above the rank of patrolman, according to a historical review compiled by retired police Sgt. Rufus Lewis, who served from 1967 until 1983.

It's a history long forgotten as the city promoted its first black police chief in 1993 and the percentage of sworn black Tampa officers grew to almost 14 percent, with minorities making up 31 percent of the force now.

But the Arts Council of Hillsborough County and Valrico artist James Vann hope to remind the public of these pioneers.

Sometime before Christmas, Vann will start work on a mural outside police District III headquarters at 3808 N 22nd St.

The mural is one of six 18-by-5-foot panels that will also depict other aspects of Tampa's black history including the city's once-vibrant Central Avenue music scene and the Belmont Heights Little League, which churned out several major league stars.

Vann will paint each of the panels, which also include themes of education, community and business. They are being paid for by the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership.

The mural for the old foot patrol will be the first public art project highlighting the history of black officers, Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.

Vann, who has a history in law and order as a New York corrections officer, seems to be a good fit for the job.

"It's perfect that it will be right there by the police station," said Arthur Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.

"I really like James' work and I think it's perfect for the neighborhood," Keeble said. "It's full of joy and hope and history."

Vann, 72, has spent more than two decades making artistic contributions to Hillsborough County. He teaches art to seniors at the Life Enrichment Center of Tampa and has drawn murals for churches and the Lee Davis Neighborhood Services Center in East Tampa.

He specialized in landscapes but over the past 15 years has focused on "neocubism," which features a jazzy style with vivid colors and striking patterns. Cubism, popularized by Pablo Picasso, reassembles objects into abstract images with sharp angles. Vann's work concentrates on the African-American experience during the "bebop era" of the 1940s and 1950s and includes portraits of jazz musicians. He counts the work of noted African-American artist Jacob Lawrence as inspiration.

Vann grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a Baptist minister, and spent church services quietly sketching away. After he graduated from a Manhattan art school, he joined the Marines, enamored by a John Wayne movie.

He studied at the Albert Pels School of Art on the GI Bill, but a career in commercial art and illustration eluded him. He became a New York City corrections officer for stable pay.

Prison riots of the 1970s made him rethink that career choice.

"I was scared as hell," he said. "I've got to get out of here, and I was thinking — art, art."

He put on an exhibit of his work in New York's SoHo area and invited his warden and other corrections officials. They saw his talent and reassigned him to the public affairs division, where he taught inmates art and brought celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand and Ralph Macchio to inspire inmates. He worked at a hospital prison ward briefly, where he played table tennis with "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, who had no other playing partners in isolation.

Vann often set up galleries for his inmates' art in Manhattan, displaying their paintings made with brushes of human hair or sculptures carved from leftover soap.

"The downside was their art would sell because they had a story and my art wouldn't sell," he joked.

Decades later and several states south in Florida, Vann's artwork continues to trace back to law enforcement.

He thinks about his career as a New York corrections officer and marvels at all the internal obstacles black law officers in Tampa overcame just a few years before him.

"In the mural, I just want to dedicate this wall to them," he said. "I can't wait to touch those walls."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

James Vann to paint six murals depicting East Tampa's black history 11/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 3:30am]

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