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Activist says racist mural he removed from St. Pete City Hall was a symbol of wrongs against black residents

Omali Yeshitela says he will rip off a proposed plaque to commemorate his act of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights era.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, in center, speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on Monday. Yeshitela addressed the plaque that is planned to be installed in City Hall at the spot where a racially offensive mural was torn down by him in 1966.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, in center, speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on Monday. Yeshitela addressed the plaque that is planned to be installed in City Hall at the spot where a racially offensive mural was torn down by him in 1966. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 15, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Omali Yeshitela stood in front of City Hall Monday and responded to a plan to hang a plaque in place of the racially offensive mural he ripped from its grand staircase wall more than a half-century ago.

Known then as Joe Waller, the 25-year-old stormed into City Hall in 1966 and marched out with the canvas that portrayed black minstrels with exaggerated features who were entertaining white beach-goers. The wall has remained blank since.

In an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times, Yeshitela decried the city’s plan to install a plaque in the place where the 7-foot by 10-foot mural by artist George Hill Snow once hung. The St. Petersburg Community Planning and Preservation Commission voted unanimously last week to approve the plaque. In the past, Yeshitela said that the city has not contacted him about plans for the blank wall. However, Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, who chaired a subcommittee to find a replacement for the stairwell wall, forwarded to the Times a June 29, 2016, letter on City of St. Petersburg letterhead that invited Yeshitela to participate.

“It was a stealth determination that they made ... and says something about the integrity of the process,” he said on Monday.

Related: Blank wall in St. Pete City Hall to get plaque recounting history of offensive mural

“The action I will take, if they try to use this whole issue of a plaque as some type of diversion, if they should go and put something up on that wall, I will tear it down, even if it takes a jackhammer," he said. "We were not fighting for a damn plaque. We were fighting for change in our community and a change in the power relationship that exists between our community and the government and the white community.”

Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of the St. Petersburg City Hall on Monday. Yeshitela addressed the plaque that is planned to be installed in City Hall at the spot where a racially offensive mural was torn down by him in 1966.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of the St. Petersburg City Hall on Monday. Yeshitela addressed the plaque that is planned to be installed in City Hall at the spot where a racially offensive mural was torn down by him in 1966. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Yeshitela, 78, who changed his name and later founded the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in 1991, referred to the mural as a symbol of the wrongs against black people.

"It was symbolic of this relationship of power, how African people could be depicted in such horrible ways, showing a caricature of black people that was a symbol that was easy to understand,” he said. “When we marched into City Hall, it wasn’t to get a plaque, it was to change the conditions of black people.”

He recalled that during the 1960s, it was announced that the city would receive $50 million in federal funds and that the money would be used to beautify downtown. That focus remains the same today, he said.

“At the time we marched, African people owned grocery stores and restaurants and lawn services and nightclubs and a whole lot of things. ... But there were very few paved streets in the community,” he said, adding that as people who built St. Petersburg and paved its streets, blacks didn’t benefit from the city’s economic development.

Yeshitela was vice chairman of the Florida chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he and another member walked into City Hall and snatched the mural that had been installed in 1945. He and five members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were arrested.

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“These people went to jail with me, and their lives were affected by it, and their families were affected by it. Their lives were fundamentally altered. We never fought for a plaque,” he said.

Yeshitela was convicted of felony theft and spent about two years in prison. Gov. Jeb Bush restored his rights in 2000. The following year, he made an unsuccessful run for mayor.

Related: A half-century later, plaque could replace mural in St. Pete City Hall

His Monday press conference was sparked by last week’s commission vote. Reese had fought more than 20 years for such a commemoration.

“The government is working with Gwen Reese to impose a charade on this community,” Yeshitela told the Times, adding that conditions for blacks in St. Petersburg are worse than they were almost 54 years ago.

He called for reparations. "The community needs a formal apology,” he said.

Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman, said the city has no comment at this time on Yeshitela’s remarks.