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Black Ex-Firefighter Looking at Massive Payout After Mural Artist Got Her Skin Tone Wrong

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Mistakes were made, feelings were hurt, but everything was made right in the end — so does the victim still deserve $30,000 from taxpayers?

That’s the question being raised as ex-firefighter Latosha Clemons, a black woman, is suing because her likeness did not reflect her proper skin color in a mural that was commissioned to honor Boynton Beach, Florida, firefighters, according to The Washington Post.

Clemons joined the Boynton Beach fire department more than 25 years ago and climbed the ranks to become deputy chief before retiring to a position as fire chief in Forest Park, Georgia.

She was the first black female firefighter and the first black person to become deputy chief, distinctions that originally had her likeness included in the plans for the mural announced in November 2019.

But when it was unveiled in June 2020, the artwork was problematic to Clemons because it depicted her with a bright grayscale face instead of her natural darker skin tone.

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Now she has accused Boynton Beach of libel, defamation and negligence because it “reflected her as a White member of the city fire department,” according to her lawsuit filed this year in April and amended in September.

The complaint said that the choice in pigments “disrespected all that the first female Black firefighter for the city had accomplished.”

“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.”

Clemons personally spoke about the racial implications of the color choices for the mural.

Do you think Clemons should have sued even though the mural was fixed?

“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,” Clemons told the Post in a statement through her attorney.

“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.”

City Manager Lori LaVerriere fired Boynton Beach public arts manager Debby Coles-Dobay, who was responsible for the design, and removed from his position Chief Matthew Petty, who allegedly requested changes to the mural.

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The rationale was that changes to the faces would be done to make them more generic and not identifiable, but LaVerriere said the tweaks “went way too far.”

The first iteration did admittedly make it look like a completely different person in Clemons’ place, but the piece was immediately taken down and fixed in November 2020 to reflect Clemons’ correct skin tone.

Coupled with the dismissals, this should have been sufficient to remedy the problem. “It is my intent to take all steps necessary to achieve justice,” Clemons promised, however.

It’s not that Clemons doesn’t have a right to be at least a bit upset, of course. The depiction of her with two female firefighters comes from an actual photo, and she has a point that her likeness was the most altered.

However, the pigment appears to have been a style choice more so than a racial consideration, as all of the faces had the same monochrome appearance.

So why would Clemons seek thousands of dollars in damages?

Often, these judgments are part restorative and part punitive, so it makes sense to teach the city a lesson, especially if this is a continuation of the long history of racial division in the South.

Without actual evidence of malicious intent, however, it seems egregious to take thousands of taxpayer dollars for a problem that ultimately was rectified in the end anyway — though her lawsuit may end up being the impetus for such revelations if they do exist.

But the waters have been muddied because of the racial climate in the U.S., now making it so every person who is overlooked or slighted — who also happens to also be a minority — feels a grave injustice has taken place rather than a mundane annoyance that is part of life.

What’s missing today is the notion of charity, assuming the good in others with the hope that others will assume the good in you.

Maybe there were rabid racists who wanted Clemons’ achievements erased from history, but there’s also a chance it was simply was a case of tweaking a design for a certain aesthetic that notably included nobody’s true pigment.

If Clemons is correct that she was targeted and purposely whitewashed, then she deserves to have her day in court and even her hefty payday — but without that evidence, this would be nothing more than another taxpayer shakedown.

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Christine earned her bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University, where she studied communications and Latin. She left her career in the insurance industry to become a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother.
Christine earned her bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University, where she studied communications and Latin. She left her career in the insurance industry to become a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother.