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Former black firefighter sues Florida city after mural depicts her with white face


A mural unveiled last year depicting a Florida city’s first black female deputy fire chief with a white face has sparked legal action, a public apology, the sacking of two city workers – and could soon result in a payment of $ 80,000.

Latosha Clemons, 48, sued the town of Boynton Beach, about 60 miles north of Miami, in April for libel and negligence. His depiction in the mural, hung in a fire station and shown on June 3, 2020, sparked embarrassment and anger, according to Clemons’ lawsuit.

“Being portrayed as white wasn’t just a misrepresentation of CLEMONS, it was also a portrayal that completely disrespected everything CLEMONS – the first black female firefighter in TOWN – had accomplished, her determination, her focus. and his hard work, ”the lawsuit said. .

Latosha Clemons when she was a battalion commander.Courtesy of Sandy Collier

Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant on Wednesday called the portrait of Clemons in the mural “unacceptable.” He also said the city commission would vote Tuesday on an $ 80,000 settlement for Clemons.

Grant said he was not sure how the other four Commissioners would vote, but said, “I’m in favor.”

Clemons declined to comment on Wednesday. She referred the questions to her lawyer, Arthur Schofield.

“Mrs Clemons is anxious to put this very painful event behind her and hopes that the city, through the members of her committee, will make the right decisions to enable her to do so,” Schofield said in a statement sent by courier. e-mail on potential settlement.

Clemons told NBC News last year that she did not attend the dedication of the mural, but shortly after the ceremony she began to receive a flood of photos and texts from friends and colleagues.

“I had to suppress my emotions, but after the event a ton of emotions came over me,” Clemons said last year. “Growing up in the community where I grew up, you haven’t seen black people, especially black women in the fire department.”

According to her lawsuit, Clemons was hired in 1996 and was the first black woman in the department. Clemons rose through the ranks and reached the posts of lieutenant, captain and battalion commander. In 2017, Clemons became deputy chef. She retired in 2020, according to the lawsuit.

The mural, which was supposed to highlight the history of the city’s firefighters, was also to feature the image of Glenn Joseph, a former black fire chief. He was also replaced by a white face.

Schofield said the city fixed the mural and hung it up in November 2020. The new version faithfully reflected Clemons’ skin tone.

“It brought her back to what she is – a black woman,” Schofield said.

Grant said the updated mural did not represent Joseph, at his request. After the unveiling in the summer of 2020, the city manager issued a public apology to Clemons and Joseph.

Two municipal employees, the director of public arts and the fire chief, lost their jobs. The public arts director was fired and the fire chief resigned, Grant said.

Schofield said it was still a mystery whose decision was to represent Clemons in white. The lawsuit said she approved of how she would look in the mural before her skin tone was changed.

“We have people pointing fingers,” Schofield said. “We didn’t get a clear answer as to who did it, or why they did it.”

Grant said the change in the mural was aimed at making people’s faces unrecognizable, the same way people are depicted on Google Maps. But he acknowledges that it was an unfortunate decision given Florida’s history as a confederate state and the city’s history of segregation involving black and Caribbean populations dating back to the 1920s.

“It had to do with the lack of racial fairness of what is harmful and hurtful to others,” Grant said. “Much of the culture was rooted in the city. We try to educate everyone on what is appropriate in today’s society.