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Tales of City Hall: The ‘racist mural controversy’

Bill DeYoung

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St. Pete City Hall is 80 years old in 2019. All photos provided by the city of St. Petersburg.

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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