Updated: Oct 1, 2020
On June 5th, Washington D.C. Mayor, Muriel Bowser pulled a boss move. Amid protests across the country in the wake of calls for police to be defunded and a tone-deaf president, the world awoke to street art. She had workers paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in large along 16th Street. In bold “caution” yellow paint, no less.
President Trump’s call for federal law enforcement to address protesters in front of the White House was the last straw for Bowser. She wanted to make it clear that as long as protesters were peaceful, they had every right to assemble on public streets.
Bowser’s decision made a huge impression. Sixteenth Street runs into Lafayette Square, a seven-acre public park located north of the White House. She took the bold move one step further by renaming a portion of 16th Street, Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Since then, at least a dozen other cities have followed suit and painted the slogan on their streets
Cities with Black Lives Matter Street Murals
North Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte, NC
South Elm Street, between February One Place and Washington Street in Greensboro, NC
“End Racism Now” located on North Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC
Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, WA (CHAZ/CHOP Zone)
Fulton Street in Brooklyn, NY
Congress Avenue in Austin, TX
Three blocks along 15th Street in Oakland, CA
Fulton Street between Webster and Octavia streets in San Francisco, CA
The corner of A & Gadsden Streets in Pensacola, FL
East 93rd Street near Union Avenue, in Cleveland, OH
9th Ave S west of 22nd Street in St. Petersburg, FL
Should the Street Murals be Prominently Displayed?
What the majority of these street murals have in common is they are in downtown areas where they are seen by people that need to know black lives matter. Places where they can’t ignore the message like near city hall or popular shopping/dining areas. Cities like Pensacola, Cleveland, and my hometown of St. Petersburg, fall short in this area.
In Gastonia, NC, the approved mural went on a basketball court in a city park. “We can cry about racist people all day, but I wanted to make sure we took the opportunity to empower ourselves while we do that,” said local artist Ezekiel Clay.
His statement mirrors similar sentiment in areas where murals are placed in black neighborhoods.
Who Thought of it First?
We all know the concept belongs to D.C. Mayor, Muriel Bowers.
Before the unveiling of the St. Petersburg mural, the former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, tagged myself and others in a Facebook post. She asked if a mural is created in St. Pete, where should it go? Several people stated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. Others agreed with Ms. Scruggs, the former president, that our very own 16th Street is the preferred spot.
My response was as an African-American, I do not need a reminder that my life matters. For me, considering the racial history of St. Petersburg, a mural would be best served if placed on Central Avenue. Preferably, towards downtown, crossing the intersection of either 16th Street or Dr. King Street would work.
Days after that first post, the word was spreading that Terri Lipsey Scott, Executive Director of the Carter G. Woodson African-American Museum, had approached the city about doing a mural. As the conversation was taking place, a team of artists was busy at work painting a mural on Ninth Avenue South, in front of the museum. It would be unveiled in time to coincide with Juneteenth, the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
Of course, it is possible and reasonable that these two great minds were thinking the same thing at the same time.
What’s Up for Debate?
There is no debate about the hard work that went into the mural. The artists brought in to do the work did a phenomenal job and deserve their accolades. The issue that myself and others have is, why paint a mural in an area of town, and on a street that is not heavily traveled. A street that houses a “museum” that rarely has art exhibits to attract traffic. It is also a street that comes to a dead-end three to four blocks from the mural.
Those in favor of the location will argue the place has historic significance. They are right.
This area of Ninth Avenue South intersects with 22nd Street. It is known to many as The Deuces. It was once one of three thriving historically African-American business districts.
The Deuces is home to the famed Manhattan Casino. It was also where many other businesses thrived. Sadly, the history has been relegated to a series of street markers along a scarcely used African-American Heritage Trail.
One other reminder of how the City is never completely vested when it comes to ideas to enrich the black legacy.
Why Not Ninth Avenue South?
Ninth Avenue South, where the Black Lives Matter street mural is painted, butts up to I-275 South. The very part of the interstate that ripped the heart out of the Deuces and displaced black residents. If we are being totally honest, it is also an area that is prime for the expansion of gentrification that is swallowing up surrounding, predominantly black neighborhoods.
This history alone is why the mural misses the mark. It is yet another reminder that St. Petersburg doesn’t care about black lives. They hand feed us appetizers and never the full meal.
Our Senior ‘s Lives Matter
There is more. The museum sits on the property of Jordan Park Apartments. Jordan Park is a historic low-income housing development that has been plagued by issues for decades. A few years ago, seniors were displaced from their homes with promises of a new and improved senior village. Many will never see that promise come to fruition.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent the St. Petersburg Housing Authority a letter at the end of January 2020, notifying them government financing for the project is in danger. This, due to failure to meet deadlines over the past two years. Since then they have revoked $2 million from the SPHA. Even Terri Lipsey Scott admits in a Tampa Bay Times article, “We have nothing to show for the investments that have been made,” referring to the stalled project.
Considering how the City has historically treated black communities in the past, from the Gas Plant area to Methodist Town, to the Deuces, it is clear our lives don’t matter as much as others. As someone pointed out on Facebook, at the intersection of Central Avenue and Fifth street is a mural by artist, Cecilia Lueza. The street mural interpreted by some is a nod to the city’s growing LGBT community.
Even if that is not the case, we can do a juxtaposition between Black History Month and PRIDE. The city shows us year after year what is a priority to them. Along Central Avenue, during Pride month, the street is lined with banners for at least 30 blocks. During Black History Month, there is a flag raised at city hall honoring the founder, Dr. Woodson.
UPDATE: On July 30, 2020, a new mural was unveiled. On a rare occasion, I was traveling east on Central Avenue, and as I approached Twenty-fifth street I saw a new street mural covering the intersection. There was no doubt about symbolism. After a little research, I came across an article on OutCoast.com titled St Pete Pride and Grand Central District Install Progressive Pride Mural.
Black Lives Should Matter to More than Black People!
If others get acknowledgment in the heart of the city, why can’t the black community make its statement there? Since St. Petersburg's inception, our lives haven’t mattered outside our communities. It’s time to erase the stigma that has divided our city for too long.
Placing Black Lives Matter along Central Avenue crossing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street not only would have reminded everyone where we’ve been but a reminder that we still have a ways to go.
Peace & Love!
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Tracy L. Darity, is the author of He Me Loves Me He Loves Me Not!, Love…Like Snow in Florida On a Hot Summer Day, and The Red Bear Society. Her much-anticipated non-fiction work When Sunday Comes Will I Still Believe God will be released in 2020.