Mayor Ken Welch became the first Black mayor of St. Petersburg, Fl. and is expected to take office on Jan. 6.
In honor of his election, the local Junior League wanted to host a gala ball, a tradition it has organized for previous mayors since 2006.
However, the Associated Press reports that the new mayor turned down the invitation. There are concerns that its circus theme was racially insensitive and demeaning.
Some of the pictures used to promote the “Under the Big Top” theme included a black pelican with a top hat. Local Black community leaders rejected the theme, adding that the once racially segregated city did not allow Black people to attend circuses.
“He has nothing to do with a circus, clowns, animals,” said the Rev. J.C. Pritchett, who is the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. “He’s a gentleman. A kind gentleman and a public servant.”
The pastor also had concerns with the proposed location of the gala because previous events were held at the upscale Coliseum or Mahaffey Theater.
But this time around, organizers planned to use a venue called the Factory, which was located in a warehouse arts district, that included outdoor space.
“For us to have the mayor’s ball in a warehouse and a parking lot is unfitting,” Prichett explained.
Junior League spokeswoman Lisa Brock stood behind the circus-theme concept, saying that the previous event was themed around the Wizard of Oz. The concept was “There’s No Place Like St. Petersburg.”
Welch said the situation helped create an opportunity.
“The diversity of St. Petersburg is our most incredible strength and our community events must be inclusive and representative of all who live here,” said Welch about the city, which is predominantly white.
Still, Brock said the Junior League was disappointed that Welch declined their invitation, and now the organization added a diversity, equity, and inclusion board position.