ST. PETERSBURG — The Junior League of St. Petersburg got to work in the spring planning the 2022 Mayoral Ball, an event its members have thrown for every mayor since Rick Baker was elected to a second term in 2006. St. Petersburg, they mused, was the Greatest City on Earth.
So the Junior League organizers went with the circus-inspired theme Under the Big Top. Promotional materials were illustrated with a big circus tent and a black pelican donning a top hat. And, in what they say was an attempt to be inclusive and COVID-19-safe, they chose the Factory, a venue in the Warehouse Arts District with outdoor space that is close to Midtown — a departure from past balls at the Coliseum and the Mahaffey Theater.
Ken Welch, who months later was handily elected to be the city’s first Black mayor, didn’t love it. Several community leaders were openly critical of the theme and change of venue to less glamorous digs.
The mayor-elect declined his invitation. And the event scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend without its guest of honor was officially canceled late Tuesday.
Social media backfire
Prominent leaders of St. Petersburg’s African American community took to social media over the past two weeks to denounce what they saw as an event that was disrespectful and unbecoming for the first Black mayor of a city with racist roots. Welch, they said, was deserving of all the pageantry of past mayors.
“He has nothing to do with a circus, clowns, animals,” said the Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. “He’s a gentleman. A kind gentleman and a public servant.”
Pritchett, a St. Petersburg native, said African Americans were not allowed to attend when the circus was in town. They would instead go to the Bayfront Center, now the Mahaffey, to watch the animals unload.
“The words we use and the images we use are hurtful to our city and to our history,” he said. “For us to have the mayor’s ball in a warehouse and in a parking lot is unfitting.”
Decades ago, St. Petersburg used to be a town where Black people were not allowed downtown except for work. Black police could not patrol white neighborhoods and Black people could not sit on iconic green benches.
Some community leaders are saying it’s the second public snub delivered to the mayor since he was elected in November. He will be inaugurated Jan. 6.
Earlier this year, the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg changed the name of its annual prayer breakfast, an event created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What was previously called the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast is now called the Community Prayer Breakfast and is planned for Feb. 8.
Spokeswoman Catherine Mitchell said the name change was made to clarify that the event is fully financed, staffed and executed by the YMCA, not the city. The decision to change the name was made in March. It was officially renamed in April.
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“The timing of the event’s name change is unfortunate, and we apologize for any concerns this announcement has caused,” Mitchell said. “The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg recognizes that the election of Mayor-Elect Ken Welch, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, is a significant and important moment in our city’s history. We are excited that our prayer breakfast can be one of the first major events where he can speak to our community and help bring us together, which is the ultimate goal of the YMCA Community Prayer Breakfast.”
City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders posted on Facebook that she was heartbroken by what is “truly a tear drop moment.” Dozens of commenters expressed their shared disappointment.
“I just think that was a poor leadership decision to do it now,” said Figgs-Sanders, who worked for the YMCA for seven years, in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “Why change it this year? Do it next year. Although it may have been unintentional, it was obvious. You can’t confuse the community with how they reacted to that name change. It had been the mayor’s prayer breakfast for 20 years.”
Welch’s RSVP for the YMCA event is pending.
‘A teachable moment’
Welch, who is out of town attending the New Mayor’s Seminar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Politics, declined an interview request but through a spokeswoman said in a statement that he and his team “are not, in any way” associated with the planning or organization of the Junior League’s mayoral ball.
“The diversity of St. Petersburg is our most incredible strength and our community events must be inclusive and representative of all who live here,” he said. “This is a teachable moment for many and we should always be open to learning together.”
Junior League spokeswoman Lisa Brock said the event was planned in March, three months before the field of mayoral candidates was set. She said it takes months to plan and raise money for the event.
The mayoral balls have always been themed. At the last ball in 2014, Mayor Rick Kriseman was honored at a Wizard of Oz-themed event titled “There’s No Place Like St. Petersburg.”
When the Junior League learned Welch wasn’t on board with this year’s theme, Brock said the organization offered to change the theme, despite already ordered decorations and signage. The Junior League would have to raise more money to pay for a new theme, but said Welch’s camp did not respond to requests for a meeting.
“It’s not viable to have a ball without the guest of honor,” Brock said. “The Junior League respects the right of the mayor to make whatever decisions he wants. It’s disappointing. The hope is they’ll be able to do something together in the future that will be meaningful for the mayor and the Junior League.”
She said the Junior League has added a board position that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“They’re committed to hearing and being active listeners, not just from the mayor and mayor’s office but from other Black leaders that are different from what members in the Junior League have experienced,” Brock said. “They want to make it clear that their goal all along is and has been to honor the city of St. Petersburg and welcome the incoming mayor.”