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Florida's first Black woman firefighter sues city after mural depicts her as White: 'I was hurt'

Latosha Clemons had been a firefighter for 25 years and is also a former deputy chief before retiring in 2020.

Florida's first Black woman firefighter sues city after mural depicts her as White: 'I was hurt'
Image source: YouTube screenshot/PalmBeachPost

Trigger warning: This story contains themes of race-motivated violence that some readers may find distressing

Latosha Clemons became Florida city's first Black woman firefighter 25 years ago and then went on to become the first Black deputy chief. Clemons had walked so many others could run. The city of Florida decided to honor Clemons who retired in 2020 with a mural but couldn't have done it any worse after she was portrayed as a White woman with her image looking like that of a ghost. Latosha Clemon, a former deputy fire chief of Boynton Beach, is accusing the city of defamation and negligence over the issue. “Being depicted as white was not only a false presentation of Clemons, it was also a depiction which completely disrespected all that the first female Black firefighter for the city had accomplished,” read a complaint filed in April, reported The Guardian. “By allowing the mural to depict Clemons as someone of a completely different race, White, a race the city presumably felt better fit the image it was looking to project.”



 


“I was like ‘Wow, why did this happen,’” recalled Clemons at a press conference in June of 2020. “I was hurt, I was disappointed, and then I was outraged,” said Clemons, reported WPTV News. “After providing the city of Boynton Beach with a lifetime of professional fire service, to be whitewashed and not memorialized for who I am will forever live with me,” said Clemons, reported The Washington Post. “As the first and only Black woman in the department, I deserved the respect I earned on a daily basis serving the citizens of Boynton Beach and deserved to be recognized for who I am: a Black woman,” she added. This was a case of literal Whitewashing with many slamming the authorities over the racist act.



 

 

Following a huge backlash from the community, the mural was taken down. The city has denied allegations in the lawsuit but has since taken down the mural and apologized for depicting them as White. Boynton Beach officials have stated that city employees were responsible for changing the design of the mural that had been earlier approved. They added that the design was changed without the knowledge or consent of public leaders. “We don’t understand why this happened,” said Grant, who is also White.



 

 

Clemons is suing the city citing damage to her reputation, cause of mental and emotional harm, and “demonstrating disrespect for the large Black population” of Boynton Beach. The complaint was filed in Florida Circuit Court in Palm Beach County in April. The City Manager Lori LaVerriere fired Debby Coles-Dobay, Boynton Beach’s public arts manager, and demoted Fire Chief Matthew Petty from his position. Petty later resigned. Both of them are White. Lori LaVerriere added they were looking into the matter. “I sincerely apologize this occurred and will take every measure necessary to ensure this never happens again,” she said in a June 2020 video. “Please understand that this unfortunate incident is not indicative of our values.”



 


“The City Commission will meet in a closed-door session to discuss the litigation. It is not a public meeting,” said LaVerriere. “It’s a reflection of the community itself and all those young girls who can walk by that station, look at that mural, and their hopes and dreams are shattered by the defacing of that,” said Clemons. The city’s former arts manager said she felt “pressured” to make the change. Debby Coles-Dobay was told by senior officials that the mural was to be changed not to specifically honor Clemons but to preserve the department’s culture and pride. “Prior to artwork installation, senior-level staff Chief Matthew Petty and Fire Marshal Kathy Cline refused to approve the installation and directed me to convey the changes to be made,” said Coles-Dobay. Clemons is seeking more than $100,000 in damages.

 
 

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