ST. PETERSBURG — At a tempestuous moment in the country’s racial soul searching, St. Petersburg could be on the verge of putting to rest a long simmering dispute about a former City Hall painting that showed black minstrels with exaggerated features entertaining white people at the beach.
In December 1966, during another anguished period, the offensive canvas was ripped from the wall by African-American activist Joe Waller, who was 25. He was arrested and imprisoned for his act, went on to change his name to Omali Yeshitela and founded the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in 1991.
In the decades since, the city has unsuccessfully attempted to address the vacant wall, veering between leaving it devoid of any artwork or installing a replacement.
On Tuesday, the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission unanimously approved a request for a plaque to be hung on the City Hall wall where the controversial mural once was showcased. Commission members agreed that the information the plaque will display is accurate and acknowledged the historic significance of the Civil Rights-era incident.
Commission chairman Christopher A. Burke wanted to defer the decision to a future meeting. He said that Waller — whose current name apparently will not be acknowledged on the plaque — is controversial, and that he was concerned about the lack of public input. Vice chairwoman Sharon Winters said it was a powerful moment to take action on the blank wall and that she was supportive of it.
“I’m just pleased that it is finally happening," said Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg. "Now is the time when it is supposed to happen.” Reese had advocated for a plaque for more than 20 years and was asked to provide a draft of what it would say. She is an alternate member of the Preservation Commission, but did not participate in Tuesday’s meeting.
Reese said the city made minor changes to her draft, but overall she is “very pleased” with the final wording. One omission bothered her, Reese said. “I did not like that they did not use the name of Omali Yeshitela. I felt very strongly about that. My draft had that.”
Yeshitela’s 1966 action was “the spark that reignited the civil rights movement in St. Pete," Reese said. "A lot of time, people don’t know the history. It is important that the story be told.” She mentioned issues such as redlining, the destruction of a black neighborhood to build Tropicana Field and the way I-275 was routed to slice through the African-American community.
“If we don’t understand the history, we cannot do anything impactful toward progress,” she said.
The racially insensitive mural hung in City Hall’s grand staircase from 1945 to 1966. Artist George Hill Snow, commissioned under a federal art project of the Works Progress Administration, painted two 7-foot by 10-foot canvases meant to portray scenes of early St. Petersburg and nearby Pass-a-Grille Beach.
It was the beach scene that angered Yeshitela, then vice chairman of the Florida chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group had unsuccessfully petitioned city officials to remove the mural, and in 1966, Yeshitela marched into City Hall and snatched it off the wall. He 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.
This week, Yeshitela, chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party, forerunner of the Uhuru group, declined to speak with a Tampa Bay Times reporter. Instead, he sent a response by Chimurenga Waller, national director of the organization and his brother.
Friday, in a press release, Yeshitela said he “will return to the steps of City Hall on Monday to announce a plan for ‘drastic actions’ in response to the city government’s attempts to rewrite history during this time of social and political upheaval.”
In a telephone interview, his brother said the city had never spoken to Yeshitela "about a plaque or a mural or anything going up on that wall.” He added that Yeshilela believes he should have learned about the plaque from the city, not from a reporter and that it shows nothing has changed since 1966. “They are just trying to cover up the meaning of what really happened. If you don’t talk to the source, then you’re trying to cover up what happened.”
Reese, 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 is important to us ... to hear from you to discuss the potential for artwork in this particular location as we want whatever might be selected to be historically sensitive,” it said. Reese said the letter was emailed and sent by certified or registered mail. Earlier that year, Yeshitela had stood in front of City Hall and vowed to tear down any offensive replacement.
On June 15, 2017, a City Council meeting to discuss a proposed replacement was thrown into chaos when Yeshitela’s followers opposed the new art as racially insensitive.
The effort to resolve the dispute dates back to at least 1998. Reese was then a member of the Concerned Citizens Action Committee. City Council members agreed to the group’s request for a plaque, but disagreement arose about what it would say.
In January, Reese again approached the City Council about a plaque. Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman made a motion to supersede a 1999 resolution declaring that the wall would remain blank, “with no artwork, decoration, signage or plaque.”
“It’s about time,” Reese said of this week’s decision. “My conscience would not let it fall by the wayside again. ... I did it for the sake of history and for the sake of justice.”