In 1996, Latosha Clemons became the first-ever Black female firefighter hired by the city of Boynton Beach, Florida. Two decades later, she became the Boynton Beach Fire Rescue Department’s first Black deputy chief.
In 2019, Boynton’s public arts commission ordered up a mural to honor the city’s firefighters and rescue workers. One of the images included in the mural was to be based on a photo of three female Boynton Beach firefighters—two of whom were white, and Clemons.
The mural, which was described by Boynton Beach City Manager Lori LaVerriere as a “significant and unique artwork,” was unveiled at the city’s new Fire Station #1 on June 3, 2020. However, something was obviously very wrong with the painting, which portrayed all three of the women, including Clemons, as white. It also depicted former Boynton Fire Chief Glenn Joseph, who is Black, as a white man.
Faced with local outrage, city officials removed the mural the next day. In the aftermath, LaVerriere fired Debby Coles-Dobay, Boynton Beach’s public arts manager. In a statement posted to Facebook, LaVerriere said she and Fire Chief Matthew Petty “agreed that it is in the best interest of the City of Boynton Beach that we mutually separate employment.” It is not clear exactly what role Petty played in the mural’s development.
“Changes were made to the approved artwork that were inappropriate… I sincerely apologize this occurred and will take every measure necessary to ensure this never happens again,” LaVerriere said at the time, explaining that the alterations were intended to ensure “the individuals would not be specifically identifiable,” but that it “went way too far” in the end. “Please understand that this unfortunate incident is not indicative of our values.”
Clemons is now suing the City of Boynton Beach for defamation and negligence.
“Being depicted as white was not only a false presentation of Clemons, it was also a depiction which completely disrespected all that Clemons, the first female Black firefighter for the City, had accomplished, her determination, focus and hard work,” the lawsuit states, adding that Boynton Beach officials portrayed Clemons as white, “a race the city presumably felt better fit the image it was trying to project.”
On Tuesday, Boynton Beach commissioners and attorneys will meet privately to strategize on how best to move forward, and whether that means settling the case or fighting it out in court. Clemons’ suit requests a jury trial.
Her attorney, Arthur Schofield, declined to comment, citing active litigation. Clemons, who is now the chief of the Forest Park, Georgia Fire Department, did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Friday.
Aside from being personally presented “in a false light” by the whitewashed mural, the artwork “also demonstrated disrespect for the large Black population of the City,” the suit contends. “The public response to the mural was immediate and far reaching, eventually involving The Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy which tried to determine how this could have happened and to maintain peace between the City and its Black population.”
The image of Clemons with a white face was distributed “with the flair of a public unveiling,” the suit continues, saying that the “false depiction” caused Clemons “mental and emotional harm, pain and suffering and damage to personal and professional reputation, as well as subjected her to ridicule, contempt, disgrace and/or humiliation both in the City Administration and in the community at large.”
In an email to the Palm Beach Post last year, Coles-Dobay, the former public arts manager, claimed she “was pressured to make this artwork change by the Fire Chief and his staff, as the City well knows.”
“I’m hurt. I’m disappointed. I’m outraged,” Clemons said after the firings were announced, saying the mural caused her “sleepless nights.” “It’s been my heart and soul and my lifeblood to serve in the community where I grew up ... this is beyond disrespect and I basically want to know why it happened.”
As her lawsuit states, “The City had a duty to ensure that the mural accurately depicted the picture Clemons had approved for use, that it depicted Clemons for who she is and for which she takes pride; a Black female.”
The mural was later revised and replaced with an unaltered depiction of Clemons.
Both sides are scheduled to meet with a mediator, via Zoom, on November 30.