The Junior League of St. Petersburg scrapped the proposed ball that was organized for the city's first Black mayor. Mayor-elect Ken Welch, the guest of honor, rejected the invitation to attend the circus-themed event, which was considered distasteful by some based on the segregated past of the city, reports the Associated Press. 

The mayoral ball was set to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2022. Junior League organizers came up with the idea of "Under the Big Top," and promotional materials that were printed depicted a big circus tent and a black pelican sporting a top hat. In an attempt to be inclusive and adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols, the planning committee said they decided to host the event at the Factory, a location in the Warehouse Arts District, close to Midtown, that has outdoor space, Tampa Bay Times reports. The venue is in stark contrast to the more upscale locations like the Coliseum and the Mahaffey Theater, where past balls were held, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Prominent Black community leaders took issue with the theme and the locale of the ball.

"For us to have the mayor's ball in a warehouse and a parking lot is unfitting," said Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, according to the Associated Press. "He has nothing to do with a circus, clowns, animals. He's a gentleman. A kind gentleman and a public servant."  

Welch added to the sentiment by saying, "The diversity of St. Petersburg is our most incredible strength and our community events must be inclusive and representative of all who live here. This is a teachable moment for many and we should always be open to [learn] together," AP reports.

During segregation, African Americans were barred from attending the circus when it came into town. The only option they had was to go to the Bayfront Center, now the Mahaffey Theater, to watch the circus staff unload the animals. St. Petersburg did not permit Black people in the downtown area except for work. Black police were not permitted to patrol white neighborhoods and Black people were prevented from sitting on the well-known green benches. Today, the city is roughly 70% white. 

“The words we use and the images we use are hurtful to our city and to our history,” said Pritchett, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Junior League spokeswoman Lisa Brock defended the choice by saying that all the mayoral balls have always had a theme. A recent one, held in 2014, went with a "Wizard of Oz" motif with the title "There's No Place Like St. Petersburg."

Brock was disappointed that Welch declined to attend this year's ball, but she indicated that different measures have been implemented for the future. Recently, the Junior League added a board position that will focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Brock noted that the Junior League was willing to use a different theme for the ball and raise the necessary funds to order new decorations and signage, however, she said Welch's team did not return messages to meet and discuss the changes, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

"It's not viable to have a ball without the guest of honor. The Junior League respects the right of the mayor to make whatever decisions he wants," said Brock, who suggested that another event may be planned to celebrate the new mayor.

Welch, a Democrat, will officially take office on Jan. 6. Mayor Rick Kriseman is stepping down because he is reaching his term limit.