St. Petersburg, Florida’s first Black Mayor declined to go to a now canceled mayor’s ball meant to honor him next year. The ball’s theme? The Circus.
Mayor-elect Ken Welch won the race for the city’s top spot last month but was completely uninterested in attending the 2022 circus-themed event planned by the Junior League of St. Petersburg. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the group began planning for the ball in the spring, but made no plans to change the theme after Welch was elected. The event was canceled late Tuesday.
The once-segregated city has a completely American past which included Black people being barred from attending the circus, the Associated Press reports.
The theme was “Under the Big Top,” with promotional materials featuring a circus tent and a black pelican with a top hat. Black community leaders pointed out that Blacks were once barred from attending the circus in majority-white St. Petersburg and that the theme was disrespectful.
“He has nothing to do with a circus, clowns, animals,” said the Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. “He’s a gentleman. A kind gentleman and a public servant.”
Adding to the concerns of Black leaders was the change in location from the more glamorous Coliseum or Mahaffey Theater — where past mayoral balls have been held — to a venue called the Factory with outdoor space in a warehouse arts district.
“For us to have the mayor’s ball in a warehouse and a parking lot is unfitting,” Pritchett said.
Junior League spokeswoman Lisa Brock noted that the balls have always been themed, with the most recent one in 2014 having a “Wizard of Oz” label: “There’s No Place Like St. Petersburg.”
Brock called Welch’s decision “disappointing” but said the Junior League has added a board position focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. She said there may be a future event to honor the new mayor.
“The diversity of St. Petersburg is our most incredible strength and our community events must be inclusive and representative of all who live here,” Welch said in a statement. “This is a teachable moment for many and we should always be open to learning together.”
According to the Times, some consider this to be the second slight levied against the incoming mayor since being elected. Recently it was announced that the annual the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast was renamed the Community Prayer Breakfast and many want the name changed back.
The name change was meant to reflect that the breakfast was financially backed and executed by the YMCA, not the city government, according to Spokeswoman Catherine Mitchell. It was officially renamed in April.
“The timing of the event’s name change is unfortunate, and we apologize for any concerns this announcement has caused,” Mitchell said, according to the Times. “The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg recognizes that the election of Mayor-Elect Ken Welch, St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, is a significant and important moment in our city’s history. We are excited that our prayer breakfast can be one of the first major events where he can speak to our community and help bring us together, which is the ultimate goal of the YMCA Community Prayer Breakfast.”
City Council member and former YMCA worker Deborah Figgs-Sanders said that the name change was a poor leadership decision. “Why change it this year? Do it next year. Although it may have been unintentional, it was obvious. You can’t confuse the community with how they reacted to that name change,” she said. ”It had been the mayor’s prayer breakfast for 20 years.”
Welch has yet to accept his invitation to this event either.