Former deputy fire chief speaks out about whitewashed mural

Retired Boynton Beach Deputy Fire Chief Latosha Clemons, the department's first black female firefighter, questioned why she and a past chief were removed from the mural


Hannah Winston
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Latosha Clemons was "just a girl from the small side of town" in Boynton Beach. Growing up, she admired women fire chiefs across the county, something she didn't see in her own hometown. Then, after years of service, she went on to become the first Black woman deputy fire chief in the department's nearly 100-year history.

When she was told she'd be included on a mural for the department's new fire building at the city center this year, she felt even more pride.

Latosha Clemons, the retired Boynton Beach Deputy Fire Chief who was depicted as white in a mural, tells her story in front of the office of her attorney, Nicole Hunt Jackson, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Photo/Lannis Waters, palmbeachpost.com)
Latosha Clemons, the retired Boynton Beach Deputy Fire Chief who was depicted as white in a mural, tells her story in front of the office of her attorney, Nicole Hunt Jackson, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Photo/Lannis Waters, palmbeachpost.com)

"This is not just something that's for me. It's for the young girls who have hopes and dreams for pursuing this career," she said.

When the mural was revealed, she was in shock. Not only had she been removed, her likeness was replaced with the face of someone white.

"This is bigger than me," she said. "It's a representation of the community."

Clemons spoke Wednesday morning outside of attorney Nicole Hunt Jackson's office in West Palm Beach, nearly two weeks after the whitewashed mural was removed. Clemons said she and Jackson, who put in a public records request with the city, will continue to search for answers as to why the mural was changed in the first place.

Jackson said Clemons is a "local hero, born and raised in the city of Boynton Beach." To be "whitewashed" was a "racial insult."

"The current national conversation about racial injustice magnifies the city's need to review its policies," Jackson said. "We demand accountability and answers as to why that mural was changed. Why were those two black faces removed from that mural?"

To date, no answer has been provided as to why Clemons and former chief Glenn Joseph were replaced with generic white faces. Joseph was the first Black firefighter in Boca Raton before he joined Boynton Beach.

In a public apology released June 5 on the city's Facebook page, City Manager Lori LaVerriere said changes were made to the previously approved mural that she was unaware of.

A public mural in Boynton Beach replaced the faces of past Deputy Chief Latosha Clemons, the department's first black female firefighter and deputy chief, and past Fire Chief Glenn Joseph, who is also black, with white faces. (Photo/Observer-Dispatch)
A public mural in Boynton Beach replaced the faces of past Deputy Chief Latosha Clemons, the department's first black female firefighter and deputy chief, and past Fire Chief Glenn Joseph, who is also black, with white faces. (Photo/Observer-Dispatch)

"It went way too far," she said about the alterations. "This never should have happened."

In the following days, LaVerriere removed Fire Chief Matthew Petty and fired Debby Coles-Dobay, the city's public arts manager, from office.

Coles-Dobay told The Palm Beach Post she "was pressured to make this artwork change by the Fire Chief and his staff, as the City well knows."

Eleanor Krusell, the city's public communications and marketing director, said the city manager has no further comments about the removals.

As of this week, Krusell said, there is no timeline for when a new mural installation will go up in the fire department.

Jackson said once they get the records and complete their own investigation, they will look at all options — such as a lawsuit — moving forward.

Clemons, who started in the department in 1996 and retired this year, said she's had "sleepless nights" since her face was removed.

She said knowing her picture on the mural would not only reflect her, but her community and the young girls who might follow her one day, filled her with a sense of pride.

"To be able to serve the community where all of my family and friends live, it was beyond anything I could ever imagine."

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©2020 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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