The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was a Florida city’s first Black female firefighter. Then she was depicted in a mural as White.

City Hall in Boynton Beach, Fla. (Google Earth)
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Latosha Clemons was a trailblazer when she joined the fire department in Boynton Beach, Fla., more than 25 years ago and became the city’s first Black female firefighter. To honor Clemons, who would later become the first Black deputy chief, the South Florida city ordered a mural intended to celebrate her, other firefighters and rescue workers for their service.

But when the mural was unveiled at a fire station last year, Clemons didn’t recognize herself. The reason: She was depicted as being White. Former Boynton Beach fire chief Glenn Joseph, who is Black, was also portrayed as White.

“I was like, ‘Wow, why did this happen?’” Clemons said at a news conference last year. “I was hurt. I was disappointed. And then I was outraged.”

Clemons, 48, is suing Boynton Beach, alleging defamation, libel and negligence over a mural that “reflected her as a White member of the city fire department,” according to the lawsuit.

“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,” the complaint said. The complaint noted that the mural was another example of racial inequality in Boynton Beach: “By allowing the mural to depict Clemons as someone of a completely different race, White, a race the city presumably felt better fit the image it was looking to project.”

Boynton Beach Mayor Steven B. Grant (I) told The Washington Post that the city commission will meet Tuesday evening in a closed-door session to discuss Clemons’s lawsuit and the altered mural, which led to the dismissal of the public arts manager and the resignation of the fire chief. The city has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, but it apologized for the White depictions and removed the mural. Boynton Beach officials have contended that city employees were responsible for changing the approved design of the mural without knowledge or consent from public leaders.

“We don’t understand why this happened,” said Grant, who is White and running for the U.S. Senate in Florida next year.

Ty Penserga, an Asian American city commissioner, told The Post that there was “no room for racism of any kind in Boynton Beach” and that “the actions around this mural do not represent our community or our city.”

“I am disgusted by it and will not stand for this type of behavior,” Penserga wrote in a text message.

The complaint, which was filed in Florida Circuit Court in Palm Beach County in April and amended last month, states that the city’s depiction of Clemons as White had damaged her reputation, caused mental and emotional harm, and “demonstrated disrespect for the large Black population” of Boynton Beach. She is seeking damages of more than $30,000, according to the amended complaint, and Clemons has requested a trial by jury.

Neither City Manager Lori LaVerriere nor James A. Cherof, an attorney for Boynton Beach, immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday. In a statement issued to The Post through her attorney, Arthur Schofield, Clemons said the mural was “humiliating, painful and demoralizing.”

“After providing the city of Boynton Beach with a lifetime of professional fire service, to be whitewashed and not memorialized for who I am will forever live with me,” said Clemons, who retired from the Boynton Beach Fire Rescue Department last year and is now the chief of the fire department in Forest Park, Ga. “As the first and only Black woman in the department, I deserved the respect I earned on a daily basis serving the citizens of Boynton Beach and deserved to be recognized for who I am: a Black woman.”

Schofield added that he was working to “identify all those involved in the decision to whitewash Latosha Clemons in the mural.”

“We are confident of the city’s liability and intend to hold it responsible for the harm caused to Ms. Clemons,” he told The Post.

A Boynton Beach native, Clemons graduated from Santaluces Community High School in neighboring Lantana and soon began working for Boynton Beach’s recreation and parks department, court documents say. At the encouragement of former Boynton Beach fire chief Floyd Jordan, Clemons enrolled in the fire academy. When she graduated on June 20, 1996, she became the first Black female firefighter in Boynton Beach — a city about 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale once regarded as a “sundown town” that prohibited Black people to be in the designated-White sections at night.

Jordan said Clemons joining the force was “one of my proudest moments.”

“She had it doubly tough, but she triumphed as well,” he told the Sun Sentinel in 2015.

It didn’t take Clemons long before she became a breakout employee for the largely White fire department. One emergency call on Christmas 2003 confirmed that she had made the right career decision. When Clemons helped rescue a 3-year-old boy who appeared to have drowned in his grandparents’ swimming pool, the firefighter doubted that he would survive, she recounted to the Palm Beach Post. He ended up walking out of the hospital days later in a moment she described to the newspaper as “a blessing.”

“It’s gratifying to know that you’re from this community and there was a kid that was saved due to this team’s efforts and you had something to do with that,” she said in 2004. “There’s nothing more rewarding than having a part in saving a kid.”

She’d go on to become the first Black deputy chief for the fire department in December 2016, overseeing discipline, training and professional development within the force.

Shortly before she retired, the city announced in November 2019 that the art commission would honor the fire department with a mural featuring Clemons. One of the images included in the mural’s design was to be based on a photo of Clemons and two other female Boynton Beach firefighters, who were White. LaVerriere, who is White, championed what she said was a “significant and unique artwork” for the city before it was revealed on June 3, 2020.

But Clemons and others were portrayed as White.

The mural was taken down the next day amid community backlash. LaVerriere fired Debby Coles-Dobay, Boynton Beach’s public arts manager, and removed Fire Chief Matthew Petty from his position. Petty later resigned. Coles-Dobay and Petty are White.

LaVerriere said “inappropriate” changes were made to the approved art design so people would not be identifiable. But those changes “went way too far,” she said.

“I sincerely apologize this occurred and will take every measure necessary to ensure this never happens again,” she said in a June 2020 video. “Please understand that this unfortunate incident is not indicative of our values.”

Coles-Dobay did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. She told the New York Times on Monday that she had been pressured by top fire officials to make changes to the mural, saying the purpose of the art project was to preserve the department’s culture and pride.

“It was not to ‘honor the contribution of Fire Rescue Department employees’ as published in the city statements,” Coles-Dobay said. “Prior to artwork installation, senior-level staff Chief Matthew Petty and Fire Marshal Kathy Cline refused to approve the installation and directed me to convey the changes to be made.”

Neither Petty nor Cline immediately responded to requests for comment.

An updated version of the mural showing Clemons’s Black skin was unveiled last November, but it did little to undo the damage, reported West Palm Beach-based station WPTV. Attorneys for Clemons and the city are expected to meet with a mediator on Nov. 30, according to court documents.

Grant, the mayor, said the city has moved forward on a racial inequality study conducted by Florida International University to help better understand the area’s history and the current state of relations, and how to avoid what he called an “inexcusable” incident from happening again.

“She grew up here, she means a lot to the community, and I would want her to feel that the city commission did what we could to repair the damage that has been done,” Grant said. “We understand there will always be a scar, but hopefully it will be healed.”

In her statement to The Post, Clemons reiterated that she would not rest until the city’s first Black female firefighter gets answers as to how she was depicted as White.

“It is my intent to take all steps necessary to achieve justice,” she said.

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