'Black Lives Matter' is a divisive phrase for unity murals on former Lake Worth 'segregation wall'
A YEAR AFTER GEORGE Floyd’s death, the “Black Lives Matter” slogan can be found just about everywhere — from a plaza near the White House to yard signs in Beverly Hills to the side of a building in downtown West Palm Beach.
But in one historically-Black neighborhood in Lake Worth Beach, the powerful phrase sparked a still-simmering debate over whether it belongs on a former ‘segregation wall’ — a wall that’s now covered with unity-themed murals.
Long before artists started painting palm trees, portraits and messages of hope, the wall was a drab gray cinder block barrier, 1,100 feet long and nearly 6 feet high, along the west side of Wingfield Street.
It was built in 1954 for one purpose, to keep Lake Worth’s Black residents in the “Osborne Colored Addition,’’ as the area east of the wall was known until 1994, apart from the white Whispering Palms neighborhood west of the wall.
“It was a segregation wall,’’ said Trudy Lowe, who remembers how a city ordinance at the time restricted Black residents to the area east of the wall.
“We knew it so we had to accept it. Now, I’m happy that it represents something different.’’
Now it’s known as the Unity Wall, a rebranding launched in 1994 when artists started painting colorful murals on the wall, which runs from just south of 12th Avenue South to 15th Avenue South.
Over the years, those murals faded from exposure to the sun. There was often talk, but no action, about much-needed touch ups.
Then, on May 25, 2020, Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, fueling the Black Lives Matter movement that would touch the world.
In September, Lake Worth Beach artists and community leaders launched a Unity Wall refurbishment project to restore the original artwork and add fresh murals.
“My goal was to revitalize the images from 1994 and fill in the black spaces with new murals. My motivation was to honor the past,’’ said Jill Karlin, an artist who helped spearhead the effort.
One of the new murals had “Black Lives Matter” superimposed over a heart.
And that sparked a debate that temporarily shut the project down and led to the whitewashing of new murals on the wall, including the Black Lives Matter piece.
Many residents wanted the mural to avoid controversy, and they thought acknowledging Black Lives Matter would be divisive, said Carmelle Marcelin-Chapman, director of the nonprofit Healthier Together Lake Worth and a leader of the Unity Wall restoration committee.
“The people who attended the community meetings felt strongly they shouldn’t have to remind the people in their community that their lives matter,’’ Marcelin-Chapman said. “Their lives should matter without having to put that on the wall.’’
But others disagree.
“I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that a Black neighborhood did not want a Black Lives Matter mural,’’ said Karlin, who is white and doesn’t live in the neighborhood.
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan belonged on the wall “because this is a Black community and we wanted it up to let people know that this is our community,’’ said Bishop Melvin Pinkney of the New Life Zion Temple.
“But they said it was too controversial. I said I didn't want any trouble. So, they went and whitewashed it.’’
In January, the controversy sparked up again just before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday when artists resumed work on the wall.
One mural said “All Lives Matter,’’ which was meant as an uplifting phrase of inclusion that represented the neighborhood's diverse mix of cultures.
Some people, though, were offended because the phrase is also associated with criticism of Black Lives Matter support.
“I was like, ‘What is that? Are you kidding me?’’ Pinkney said. “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.’’
After some tense meetings, the committee issued apologies to anyone offended and erased the “All Lives Matter” mural.
Now, everyone involved is trying to move on.
Artists have been showing up on Saturdays to work on 17 vacant spaces on artwork that will join the other 69 existing murals. The goal is to finish by May 31 or early June when an artists’ celebration event will be held.
“I think the community did well at resolving this issue,’’ said Marcelin-Chapman
“The wall is a unity wall. It’s not just about blacks who live in the community. We have Mexicans, Guatemala-Mayan, whites. It’s a wall that represents everyone who lives in that community.’’
But the issue still isn’t resolved in the view of some residents.
Allen Bostick, a retired school custodian who lives across the street from the unity wall, said he hopes one of the vacant panels can express Black Lives Matter.
“To me, Black Lives Matter is about unity and inclusion,’’ he said. “I want it on the wall, so my grandkids can see it when they grow up. If you look at this wall 20 years from now, it'll be a reminder of what was going on now.’’
Bostick acknowledged the wall’s many beautiful images -- from portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to an Aztec temple to Mexican astronaut Jose M. Hernandez. But he also said he thinks the wall should be devoted to murals that tell the story of the Osborne neighborhood.
He said one mural of Frederick Douglass, President Obama, Martin Luther King Jr and Congressman John Lewis might be more appropriate on a building downtown.
“There is all that room and you can't put ‘black lives matter’ up?’’ he asked.
Trudy Lowe said she is one of many local residents “who did not want Black Lives Matter on the wall because when I drive through every day and pass the wall, I already know that black lives matter.’’
The Black Lives Matter movement is a powerful and important civil rights tool, she said.
“But to me, it is not important that I drive by that wall every day to see ‘black lives matter.’ That message should be placed in a location where people need to know that black lives matter. Most of the people here are originals. We know black lives matter, so we did not need to advertise.’’
Many residents still have bad memories of the wall and what it stood for. Some think it’s a symbol of ugliness that should be taken down, like the Berlin Wall.
Lowe isn’t one of them.
“I'm the kind of person who moves on and doesn't look back. It's a unity wall. It is beautiful. It represents all people,’’ Lowe told me in a phone interview.
“And before I hang up with you, I want to share one more story about my experience growing up. When we were segregated, Black kids went to the Osborne blacks-only school and the white kids went to Barton Elementary,’’ she said.
“I think Barton was integrated in 1964 or ‘65, and some of my white classmates were Judy and Mark Easton (now the publisher of the Lake Worth Herald). And when I tell you that those white kids welcomed me with open arms, believe me that they welcomed me with open arms. I was 9 or 10 and that meant a lot.
"That’s the kind of stuff I keep in my heart.’’
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