Two Florida officials fired for erasing faces of Black firefighters from city mural

Patrice Gaines

Latosha Clemons, the first Black female deputy fire chief and the only Black female firefighter in Boynton Beach, Florida, was to have been depicted on a long-planned public arts mural. But when the mural was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting this month, Clemons' image had been replaced by a white face.

The mural also was to have featured the image of Glenn Joseph, a Black former fire chief. He was also replaced by a white face. Now Clemons has hired a lawyer to find out how the mural ended up featuring only white firefighters

"I wanted little Black girls to look at that mural and know they can have their face on a mural," said Clemons, who had retired from the department a few months earlier.

Image: Latosha Clemons (Courtesy Sandy Collier)

In response to a request for an interview with the city manager, a spokesperson for the city of Boynton Beach said in an emailed statement: "The City Manager has concluded her inquiry into this matter and issued a public apology to Deputy Chief of Operations Latosha Clemons and Chief Glenn Joseph for the alterations of their photos ... and the mural was removed Thursday, June 4.

The mural is to be replaced with the original design, although no date has been announced. But Clemons wants more than the dismissal of two city employees and a new mural.

Nicole Hunt Jackson, Clemons' attorney, said: "My role is to get to who is responsible, how they came to the conclusion it was acceptable — and to push the issue for the need to examine policies and determine whether or not there needs to be racial sensitivity training.

"It's a huge racial insult. For them to unilaterally take this and decide to not only remove her face but to whitewash the face, it is beyond offensive," said Jackson, who has filed requests for all records related to the planning of the mural.

Image: Latosha Clemons (Courtesy Sandy Collier)

Clemons has not spoken to her colleague Joseph, and he has not commented publicly on being erased from the mural. NBC News was unable to reach Joseph, who has also retired as fire chief in Boca Raton.

Clemons did not attend the mural dedication ceremony, but she received a flood of texts and photos from friends and colleagues who were there.

"I had an event to do that night. I was stunned, hurt, shocked," Clemons said. "I had to suppress my emotions, but after the event a ton of emotions came over me."

When she thinks about all the challenges of her career and the public insult, Clemons said, "Sometimes I get overwhelmed with tears. ...

"Growing up in the community where I grew up, you didn't see Blacks, particularly Black women in the fire department," she said.

But when she noticed other women of color working as firefighters, she thought that perhaps becoming a firefighter was a possibility for her, too. She scheduled an appointment with the fire chief, who at the time was Black. He encouraged her, even writing a letter of recommendation to the fire academy

She was hired June 20, 1996, "as the first and only Black woman in a department established in 1924," Clemons said. "I was the first — and the only Black woman ever."

Of her experience, Clemons said, "I worked hard, treated people with respect, persevered — and was able to overcome obstacles that came my way."

Pastor Rae Whitely of the Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy, an interfaith group that "works to empower the black and brown communities," Whitely said. "Just to know the fire chief was a part of that conversation makes you ask, ‘What else has been going on? What other influence has he had in decisions?'"

Whitely said "social media erupted" after the unveiling of the mural. He said he and other leaders have had to calm down some activists "who really want to do some stuff. Young people are pissed, and so are people who served with her — Black and white. It was obvious that this was not a mistake."

The coalition sent a letter to the city manager and the city commissioners and put in a public records request to discover who was involved in the process that led to the approval of the art.

Clemons is a "local hero" to some people, Whitely said. "To have this happen to her in the climate we are in, it just reaggravated the trauma. It was unreal."