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A racially offensive painting, yanked from St. Petersburg City Hall decades ago, simply disappeared

Rumors abound about what happened to the controversial artwork.
Joe Waller and a group of men in 1966, just before they were arrested for ripping down the mural which hung in St. Petersburg City Hall.
Joe Waller and a group of men in 1966, just before they were arrested for ripping down the mural which hung in St. Petersburg City Hall. [ JESSE MOORE | Times (1966) ]
Published Aug. 5, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s an apparent mystery. What became of the racially offensive painting a young Black activist ripped from a St. Petersburg City Hall wall one December day in 1966?

The man who marched out with the canvas that portrayed black minstrels with exaggerated features entertaining white beach-goers went to prison, returned to St. Petersburg, gave himself a new name, formed a radical organization and ran for mayor.

But the whereabouts of the painting, a 7–foot by 10–foot mural by artist George Hill Snow, remains unknown, though there is one persistent rumor.

“I heard that it was at a judge’s ski chalet in Colorado,” said Monica Kile, executive director of Preserve the ‘Burg, an organization known for its preservation efforts.

Kile said she heard the story from an impeccable source, who, in turn, told her that “she had heard it from sources she trusted.”

What Kile had not learned was the name of the judge. Others have been more specific.

Word was that former Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mark McGarry Jr., who died in 2015, got the painting when an evidence room was cleaned out and that it hung in his Colorado home.

Not so, said his son, retired Pinellas prosecutor Mark McGarry III, who laughed at the tale and said he heard it for the first time from a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

“My mom meticulously decorated this place, and anything my father introduced was put in the basement,” McGarry said last week, speaking from the house in Durango, Colo., where, like his father, he now divides his time between the Western state and Florida.

McGarry added that he had archived everything in the Durango house and “never saw anything like” the infamous canvas. Further, he said, his father, who was elected to the 6th Judicial Circuit bench in 1966, was partial to Western art.

Joe Waller was 25 when he walked into City Hall and tore the mural from the wall where it had been in place since 1945. Today, he’s known as Omali Yeshitela, founder of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. The stairwell wall where the painting once hung remains blank, though the city is making plans to hang a plaque that explains the vacant spot and acknowledges the historical significance of Yeshitela’s act of civil disobedience.

Omali and five other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were arrested. A photograph shows the group carrying the painting through downtown streets. What happened later is a mystery.

The vacant wall, right, in the main center stairway of St. Petersburg City Hall. In 1966 that's where activist Omali Yeshitela tore down a mural because it used racist caricatures. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The vacant wall, right, in the main center stairway of St. Petersburg City Hall. In 1966 that's where activist Omali Yeshitela tore down a mural because it used racist caricatures. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

“We checked into the mural. All of the evidence associated with the Waller case was transferred to the courthouse on May 2, 1967, and never came back,” said Yolanda Fernandez, spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Police Department, in an email early this year.

Rod Tabler, a senior manager in the office of Ken Burke, Clerk of the Circuit Court, was unable to provide much enlightenment.

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

“After a thorough search of the records maintained by the Pinellas County Clerk’s Office, we do not find any records responsive to your request as stated,” Tabler wrote in response to a Times inquiry. “In addition, I did reach out to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Property and Evidence Storage department, as well as the St. Petersburg Police Evidence Storage department, and neither of those two agencies have any records responsive to your request.”

Responding to a follow-up question pointing to St. Petersburg’s claim, Tabler said “a thorough and diligent search” had not located the mural “or any other evidence connected to the case.”

This week, though, a search of the entire case file of 2,400 microfilm pages turned up something new, “a copy of a pleading from the case that indicates that State’s evidence #1 (Mural) was stored in their evidence room and not entered into evidence,” Tabler said.

A copy of a microfilm document of a pleading in the case of the racially offensive mural taken down from a wall in the St. Petersburg City Hall in 1966 indicates that "State’s evidence #1 (Mural) was stored in their evidence room and not entered into evidence,” according to Rod Tabler, a senior manager in the office of Ken Burke, Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court.
A copy of a microfilm document of a pleading in the case of the racially offensive mural taken down from a wall in the St. Petersburg City Hall in 1966 indicates that "State’s evidence #1 (Mural) was stored in their evidence room and not entered into evidence,” according to Rod Tabler, a senior manager in the office of Ken Burke, Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court. [ Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court ]

On Tuesday, State Attorney Bernie McCabe stated unequivocally that the mural is not in the possession of his office.

Could that be the end of the story? Judge McGarry’s son suggested that the Times contact one of his father’s close friends, retired Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Robert E. Beach.

“It’s totally false,” Beach said of the rumor connecting his friend to the City Hall mural. “The mural never got to McGarry’s house. I don’t know where that came from. We were very close. I’ve been all through his house in Durango.”

He added that Judge McGarry did not have anything to do with the Joe Waller case. In fact, Beach said, he was the one who granted the young activist bond.

The mystery surrounding the mural continues.

“I’d be curious to know what happened to it, too,” Beach said.