A Black woman firefighter was honored in a mural. In it, her face was painted white.
Oh, but wait for the "why."
Last year, a mural went up in Boynton Beach, Florida celebrating heroic local firefighters. One of the women depicted was Latosha Clemons, 48, the first Black female firefighter in Boynton Beach who served as deputy fire chief until her retirement in mid-2020. Let’s just put aside that “first Black female” anything in 2020 is pretty egregious on its own, because it gets far worse. Clemons was outraged when she saw the portrait of herself because — wait for it — she was painted with a white face. Clemons is suing the city for defamation and negligence, Insider reported, and they are voting next week on a proposed $80,000 settlement.
The mural was unveiled on Clemons’s old fire station on June 3, 2020. It showed both Clemons and Glenn Joseph, a Black retired fire chief, as white, according to Insider. The mural was removed the next day and two local officials were fired over the controversy. But, the city claimed, the literal whitewashing of these prominent Black heroes had nothing to do with race. Of course not.
The way the subjects of the mural were depicted, claimed Boynton Beach mayor Steve Grant, was intended to make the subjects look unrecognizable like Google Maps, reported NBC. Uh huh. With due respect to the difficult skill of artistic rendering, there’s unrecognizable, and then there’s an eerily transparent attempt to erase Black people out of prominence.
"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 Clemons’s complaint. A new version of the mural went up in November 2020 that showed Clemons with a more accurate skin tone, but the other Black firefighter, Glenn Joseph, was left out of the new mural completely.
Unfortunately, while this story is shameful in its own right, it is just the most recent battle against the ongoing racism in fire departments. Unlike cops, firefighters are pretty universally loved. It’s hard to hate people who go into burning buildings to save kittens, after all.
But, also like other highly respected and well-paying civil service jobs, fire departments are predominantly white and male. There has been some talk about how to make firefighting more inclusive, but this case and other recent race scandals in fire departments make me wonder if all we’re doing is talking about it.