ST. PETERSBURG –Since Omali Yeshitela was the one who tore down the mural at city hall in protest 50 years ago, he believes he should have a say in what will finally replace it.
Amidst a decade rife with civil unrest, Yeshitela—known then as Joseph Waller—forcibly took down a mural during a protest in downtown St. Pete Dec. 29, 1966. Commissioned in 1940, it was one of two murals by artist George Snow Hill that adorned St. Pete City Hall. Prominently placed in the grand staircase, it depicted African-American caricatures playing the banjo and eating watermelon for the entertainment of white sunbathers—a work Yeshitela believed could only be deemed disrespectful and racist.
During a press conference held June 30, the 74-year-old Yeshitela, founder of the Uhuru Movement, said the only “motivating force” that drove him to tear down the mural was his commitment to the city’s black community.
Mincing no words, he called the mural “horrible” and “despicable” and maintained that it was a reflection not only of the relationship that exists between black people and white people in the city, but also the relationship that exists between black residents and the City of St. Pete.
His commitment is the same today, as it is the black community that was “slandered” with that mural.
Since he served jail time for his act of passion 50 years ago, he feels he has earned the right to put together an art committee who has the interests of the African-American community at heart and can examine what should replace that mural.
“I paid for that mural,” he said, “with two and a half years of my life in prison.”
The committee he’s putting together is drawn from a pool of young African-American artists and students, officers of the Uhuru Movement and even includes Yashica Clemmons, the mother of Dominique Battle who was one of three teens found dead in a car that had been driven into a pond back in March.
Yeshitela is happy that the city has come up with $50,000 that will go to the artist of the new mural, as it was initially only $10,000. He instructed all hopeful artists to submit their work for the committee to review through the website theburningspear.com.
Though the city may have an interest in representing African Americans in the new mural, he said the black community should decide just how they are to be depicted and made it clear that his committee will only consider submissions from black artists.
“We have gone beyond that day,” he attested, “when anybody else can have any part of the process of defining who we are as a people.”
The city has been dishonest, Yeshitela said, in saying that they would get in touch with him concerning the process of selecting a new mural. Only after the Uhuru Movement protested did they invite him to participate in the process, he remarked.
“I’m here to remind them that the process started 50 years ago!” he said, pointing out that he is the one who made the initial criticism of the art.
He said he was never invited to a recent meeting that was open to the public concerning the new mural, only reading about it in the Tampa Bay Times. Though he should have been included in the undertaking of the replacement mural from the start, he conceded he would “possibly” consider someone from the Public Arts Committee to sit on the Uhuru Movement’s committee.
Yeshitela revealed that the forceful removal of the mural wasn’t a stand-alone act. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that he led back in 1966, he explained, had begun protests for what its members saw as an unfair distribution of $50 million of federal funds that St. Petersburg had received a part of. The city decided to use the funds to beautify the white downtown area, he said, while the African-American community “lived in the muck and mire of colonial oppression.”
“We felt that was a distorted understanding of what should be happening,” he said, “and that money should be coming to the community. The mural became symbolic of that kind of relationship and we announced that we were going to begin demonstrating.”
And even back then he found out that African Americans in the community subsequently held secret meetings with the press. Yeshitela saw it as a contradiction that afterward he was told he could have attended those meetings, and sees the same contradictions these days when he is not kept abreast of happenings concerning the new mural.
“The same forces that participated in one way or another, historically, in putting that mural up and oppressing our community,” he averred, “are the forces now that intend to define what that mural was about and what should go up. And we say it won’t happen.”