'I'm outraged': Black FF files $100K lawsuit over city mural depicting her as white

Latosha Clemons, Boynton Beach, Florida's first Black female firefighter, alleges damage to her personal and professional reputation

Jorge Milian
The Palm Beach Post

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — City attorneys and commissioners will meet next week to discuss a lawsuit filed by Boynton Beach's first Black female firefighter after her image was represented as white on a public mural.

Latosha Clemons, who rose the ranks to become Boynton's first Black deputy fire chief, is seeking more than $100,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit filed in April.

A photograph of Clemons and two white firefighters served as the template for the mural, which when completed, portrayed all three as white.
A photograph of Clemons and two white firefighters served as the template for the mural, which when completed, portrayed all three as white. (Photo/MCT)

Attorneys will meet in a closed-door session with commissioners on Tuesday to seek direction in the case. Possibilities range from a settlement with Clemons to litigating the case in court. Clemons' attorneys have requested a jury trial.

A photograph of three women — Clemons and two white female firefighters — served as the template for the mural, which when completed, however, portrayed all three women as white. The 2019 project by the city's art commission to honor the fire department also included a depiction of Glenn Joseph, the city's former fire chief, who is also Black, and whose image also was represented as that of a white man.

Embarrassed officials removed the mural a day after it was unveiled at Fire Rescue Station No. 1 near City Hall on June 3, 2020.

The city also responded by firing Debby Coles-Dobay, the public arts manager, and removing Matthew Petty as fire chief. Cole-Dobay and Petty are white.

Clemons worked 26 years for the city before retiring in 2020.

Whitewashing her likeness on the mural "completely disrespected all that Clemons ... had accomplished," according to the lawsuit, and "also demonstrated disrespect for the large black population" of Boynton Beach.

Petty pressured Coles-Dobay to revise the plan the mural was based on and the city was "well aware of the change," the suit states.

Boynton Beach officials wanted Clemons depicted as white, "a race the city presumably felt better fit the image it was trying to project," according to court documents.

Boynton city attorneys James Cherof and Gal Betesh assert in a court filing the "employee(s) responsible for altering the mural ... acted outside the scope of their employment and without the city's knowledge or consent."

Arthur Schofield, Clemons' West Palm Beach-based attorney, declined comment on the lawsuit this week because the case is pending.

City Manager Lori LaVerriere did not responded to a request for comment. LaVerriere has previously said she was unaware of the changes to the mural.

"I'm hurt. I'm disappointed. I'm outraged," Clemons told the Palm Beach Post in June 2020. "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."

Clemons, 48, was born in Boynton Beach and began working for the city's recreation and parks department after graduating from Santaluces High School. She was encouraged to enroll in the fire academy by former Boynton Fire Chief Floyd Jordan, court documents say, and was hired after graduating from the academy by the city's fire department on June 20, 1996.

Clemons worked her way up to deputy fire chief, a position she held for three years before retiring in 2020.

Fallout for Clemons, the suit alleges, has included damage to her personal and professional reputations, loss of income and "subjected her to ridicule, contempt, disgrace and/or humiliation..."

The next court date listed in the case is a mediation session Nov. 30.


©2021 www.palmbeachpost.com

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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