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Tales of City Hall: The ‘racist mural controversy’

Bill DeYoung

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St. Pete City Hall

St. Petersburg’s City Hall is 80 years old, so its current temporary closure – for replacing the roof and upgrading the air conditioning and heating systems – seems reasonable enough. The last time the venerable Mediterranean Revival-style building got a facelift was 1999, for its 60th birthday.

Twenty years ago, the upgrade cost $2 million. The current renovations carry a $6.1 million price tag.

1940s-era postcard

St. Pete wasn’t exactly a one-horse town in 1939, when the aging, original City Hall (at the current site of the BB&T building, on 4th Street and 1st Avenue S) was condemned and torn down. With a population of 40,000, the city was beginning to bustle, as pain from the Great Depression eased. Fifty-six officers made up the police force (with nine radio-equipped squad cars), and the fire department had a full-time staff of 48.

There were two banks, two high schools – and nine public theaters.

Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the city received a Public Works Administration grant for a new City Hall building. The grant paid for approximately half of the $400,000 construction costs.

The PWA also provided survival money for out-of-work artists, by commissioning them to create work to decorate public buildings.

Michigan-born painter George Snow Hill, who’d relocated to St. Petersburg for health reasons in 1933, was the recipient of Civil Works Administration monies.

He created a series of five large murals, each depicting an era in Florida’s history. Originally to be hung in the Pinellas County Courthouse, the art became the eye of a hurricane of controversy when a circuit court judge objected to one panel depicting nubile young ladies on a beach, “in brassiere-type bathing suits.” The image, he declared, was not appropriate for such a solemn location.

George Snow Hill

After months of back-and-forth, with the local Art Club, the media, citizens and politicians weighing in, Clearwater’s new municipal auditorium agreed to hang the murals. They were lost when the building was demolished in the 1960s.

Hill created murals for the city’s U.S. Coast Guard station, for the Garden Cafeteria, and for Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport (“Legacy of Flight” included seven historical panels, with Tony Jannus’ pioneering 1914 flight across Tampa Bay prominent among them). Several of the original panels, fully restored, now hang at Tampa International Airport.

Hill’s work has been compared to that of the well-known New Deal muralist Thomas Hart Benton. He and his wife, Polly Knipp Hill, were well-liked members of the St. Petersburg art community.

But he didn’t always have things easy. After the “sunbathers” scandal, he was taken to task for his depiction of a nearly-naked female, her breast exposed, floating in a life preserver inside his Coast Guard “rescue” mural.

A mural in the post office in the town of Madison, depicting an old-time cotton mill, was criticized because the workers were all black, the suited supervisor white. A 1938 piece called Building the Tamiami Trail raised eyebrows – many years later – because it showed five African American men in “striped convict shorts” straining to pull a heavy cart through a swamp.

In 1940, Hill received a commission from the Federal Art Project to paint two murals for the just-completed St. Petersburg City Hall. His idea – approved by both city and federal government – was to depict everyday life in St. Petersburg.

America’s entry into World War II effectively ended federal funding for public art, but Snow was undeterred. He announced he would finish the paintings, at his own expense, and donate them to his adopted home.

“Fishing on the Pier”

The 7×10-foot canvases were framed and hung on the walls of the first-floor stairway landing, in 1945. On the north side, Fishing on the Pier depicted a family doing just that at the “Million Dollar Pier,” a pelican in the foreground, at the ready for any spare, un-hooked fish. A newsboy hawks his wares. There’s a green bench. In the background, men with fishing poles peer into the water of Tampa Bay below.

The south wall was gifted with Picnicking at Pass-a-Grille. Another leisure scene, it featured a white family, seen from behind, under a thatched pavilion on Pass-a-Grille Beach, their lunch laid out on the table: Fried chicken, pie and watermelon.

Facing the family are a pair of musicians, one on guitar, the other playing a fiddle. They are entertaining the picnickers.

The musicians are black – stereotypically “minstrel show” black, in accordance with the pop culture of the era, with wide white eyes and oversized white lips.

And this painting hung in St. Petersburg City Hall for almost 20 years.

The historical record shows that Picnicking at Pass-a-Grille was controversial if not from day one, then early in its ignominious existence. In 1959 Ruth MacLellan, a member of the St. Petersburg Council on Human Relations, and her husband complained to City Council. Reportedly, a future councilman who had lodged a formal complaint would avoid the main staircase altogether when he attended council meetings.

Race relations came to a boil all over the United States in the ‘60s, and eventually Hill’s mural became St. Petersburg’s most visible bone of contention in the battle for civil rights. On Thursday, Dec. 29, 1966, 25-year-old Joseph Waller and five friends strode up the steps of City Hall at lunchtime; without a word Waller took out a knife and liberated Picknicking at Pass-a-Grille from its frame.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, the men ran out of the building, the canvas stretched open between them, and shouted “We’re gonna take this picture down where all the black people can see it!”

Tailed by a police detective who’d seen them emerge from City Hall, the group walked to Central Avenue and turned north, marching briskly up the sidewalk (in the Times photograph of the incident, a man is carrying a sign that reads “Lynn KKK Andrews Has to Go,” a reference to the controversial then-current City Manager, a key figure in a city-wide sanitation strike the previous month).

St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 30, 1966

They were arrested at 6th Street and Central. According to the newspaper, the mural was “trampled” in the ensuing scuffle.

Said NAACP Field Director Marvin Davies: “It is highly unfortunate that the despicable mural was removed from the walls of City Hall. We feel another method could have been employed to accomplish similar results. We, as concerned leaders of the St. Petersburg community, oppose any act which defaces public property.”

Davies then made the real point: “However, we too are opposed to any stereotype painting of any nature. Some people attempt to justify the appearance of the mural as one of historical accuracy.”

Hill, the artist, said the removal of his mural was upsetting. “I cannot understand how anybody can think it shows Negroes in a despicable way,” he told the Times. Hill explained that he was simply remembering the beach picnic pavilions he and his wife had enjoyed in the 1930s, when they’d first arrived in St. Pete. Strolling musicians were always part of the experience. “There was no feeling of anything but affection for the troubadours,” he said.

Hill placed a value of $15,000 on the canvas.

Waller, who identified himself to police as the vice chairman of the Florida front of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, had petitioned City Council to remove the offensive work – in writing – numerous times, to no avail.

He was convicted on multiple felony charges, and served two years in prison, arguing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When he was released for time served, judge David Seth Walker recalled once viewing the “embarrassing” mural.

Waller later changed his name to Omali Yeshitela, and in 1972 founded the Uhuru movement; his African People’s Socialist Party is still based in St. Petersburg.

Waller/Yeshitela’s rights were fully restored by Governor Jeb Bush in 2000.

Picknicking at Pass-a-Grille now only exists as poorly-lit black and white photos. The canvas was thought to have been lost in an evidence-locker shuffle somewhere along the timeline. A rumor persists that its tattered remains hang on a retired judge’s chalet wall in Colorado.

While Fishing at the Pier remains in place (it underwent restoration in 2013), Council has made several attempts at commissioning some sort of replacement for its 50-years-lost companion. An historical civil rights image? Something depicting racial harmony in St. Pete? Serious thought was given, at one time, to a plaque honoring Waller for what seems today a righteous act of civil disobedience.

Typical of politics, no one has been able to agree on anything. As of right now, the wall remains empty. And when City Hall re-opens, in six months or so, it will, doubtless, still be empty.

Which might actually be the boldest statement of all.

 

Detail, “Picnicking at Pass-a-Grille” (from a black and white photo)

 

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8 Comments
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8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bill Vogel

    July 22, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    Everything is racist, I guess

    • Avatar

      Thomas Tito

      July 22, 2019 at 10:09 pm

      According to newspaper articles at the time the court did not seem to want anyone to go to prison for this, giving all but one a light sentence. The city establishment was embarrassed not just by this horrible mural but also by the poor treatment and broken promises to it’s workers that led to the strike. The court wanted words of reconciliation.

      An earlier St. Petersburg Times article written during the sanitation strike describes Waller/Yeshitela’s small group trailing a large march in support of the strike and chanting “this little honky town, we gonna burn it down”.

      Since then the Republican party has fallen in love with the Uhuru’s. Despite continued incitement of violence the city steered hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money to this group. The extremely rare pardon from Jeb Bush you cited was to allow Yeshitela to help elect Rick Baker as mayor by running in the primary and using every opportunity to slam the Democratic candidate. They used the same playbook to run against Mayor Kriseman but they barely got one percent of the electorate.

    • Avatar

      Rich T

      July 23, 2019 at 11:58 am

      When everything is racist, nothing is racist.

  2. Avatar

    Marlene Ball

    July 22, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    I can see where it shouldn’t be put up. The photo ( Art ) of fishing is great. Why should African Americans be reminded of the harsh reality of this when history will not put any good history up around the world of them. If it we were in a better place I would acknowledge it but until they are treated fairly with everything I have a right to my own opinion. If it was turned around, as I am Caucasian,I would feel the same way. We have taken our rights and are tearing our morals down to crap because we are white. Not fair to other nationalities.

  3. Avatar

    Angel Torrens

    July 23, 2019 at 8:18 am

    It’s funny how the opperssers get so offended, when the underdogs rise and show their true strength. Someday they’ll be the minority.

  4. Avatar

    Roz Rolle

    July 23, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    That’s what Pinellas county taught us at Gibbs Sr. High. Class of 1959. Stand up for what you believe is right.

  5. Avatar

    geff Strik

    October 9, 2020 at 7:47 am

    There is nothing racist to paint anything , freedom of speech and freedom of expression are vital in a modern smart and creative country , for 100s years black people have been painted and african art is one of the most caricatural art in History as it inspired Picasso sculptures and cubist paintings.
    Artists traveled the world in search for inspiration , the Orientalist painted paysages, cities , people from new discovered countries and no one told them they were racist cause the painted views of Africa , North Africa , Asia, or Middle east, it was a way to share with people who were not able to travel the beauty of new colors , lights and different life styles ,in most of the case people were payed to pose for the artists , gifts were exchanged with respect and love , Picasso , Jean-leon Gerome , Gustave Bauernfeind, Rudolf Ernst etc all are celebrated painters , Jean -Leon Gerome “Prayer in Mosque ” from 1892 was in auction sale at Sotheby for £1,500,000 to £2,000,000.
    Picasso didn t hesitate from 1906 to 1909 , to interprete African Art , sculpture , traditional masks , mixing iberian sculpture and iberian schematic art from Paul Cezanne and El Greco , this proto Cubist Period has also been called the Negro Period or Black Period after Pablo’s blue and Pink periods.That s fact , Art has no limit , no boundery , no fascist regime and ideologues can limit creativity and freedom of expression , taking a part any Art is an act of violence against our freedom , the Nazis, Communist , the terrorists Taliban destroyed Art and sculpture to impose racist, fascist and bloody way of life imposing violent repression and extremist political and religious ideologies .
    Hill was not racist , why he should be? Art is universal , no one can touch it , no one should destroy it .
    Art can not be regulated by any political or religious ideologies of a single person or a group , art is subject of discussion and debate in every healthy society , those who destroy Art are nothing more than terrorists and deserve to pay the price for their action .
    No politic decide what Art is good or bad , because people a afraid , artist are afraid , they don t want to be insulted , artists are bullied if they don t follow the political guide line , i know very well this St Pete city hall painting controversy , if you dare to interview me i will tell you my vision of it .

  6. Avatar

    geff Strik

    October 9, 2020 at 8:09 am

    Art can not be politicaly correct , as soon as it is , i call it propaganda .
    G.S

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