The Junior League of St. Petersburg has been throwing a formal event for the mayors of St. Petersburg, Florida, since 2006, but the mayoral ball planned for 2022 has been canceled due to the man who is to be the city’s first Black mayor declining his invite.
According to Tampa Bay Times, Mayor-elect Ken Welch decided not to attend the event because he just wasn’t feeling the theme decided on for it. The event set for January during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend won’t happen because it’s not like you can have a mayoral ball without a mayor, but it would have been called “Under the Big Top,” and would have included a circus theme complete with a circus tent and a black pelican with a top hat. Some leaders of the Black community in St. Petersburg, a city that is 70 percent white, felt the theme was inappropriate considering the fact that the city has a deep history of segregation that disallowed Black people to walk the streets downtown at all, let alone attend circuses.
In fact, according to Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, decades ago, Black people would go to the Bayfront Center, which is now the Mahaffey, to watch animals be unloaded for the circuses they weren’t allowed to attend when the circus was in town.
“He has nothing to do with a circus, clowns, animals,” Pritchett said, according to the Times. “He’s a gentleman. A kind gentleman and a public servant.”
Junior League spokeswoman Lisa Brock said the event was planned in March, which was three months before the mayoral candidates were announced, so the circus theme didn’t have anything to do with the mayor being Black. She also mentioned that there’s always a planned theme. For example, the last ball thrown for Mayor Rick Kriseman in 2014 was a Wizard of Oz-themed event called “There’s no place like St. Petersburg.”
But that doesn’t seem to be the point being made by Black community leaders like Pritchett. The issue appears to be that St. Petersburg is such a white city historically and currently, that how any particular theme might be interpreted across cultures isn’t really a thing that occurs to event planners.
“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 told the Times through a spokeswoman. “This is a teachable moment for many and we should always be open to learning together.”
At any rate, the theme for the event wasn’t the only issue. The event was also moved from the Mahaffey Theater, a ritzy coliseum where the mayoral ball had been held every year prior, to a venue called the Factory in the city’s warehouse arts district. According to the Junior League, the location change was made because it has outdoor space that would be more ideal for an event held during an ongoing COVID pandemic, but not everyone bought that explanation.
“The words we use and the images we use are hurtful to our city and to our history,” Pritchett said. “For us to have the mayor’s ball in a warehouse and in a parking lot is unfitting.”
Welch was elected mayor of St. Petersburg early last month and will be inaugurated on January 6.