Bob Welsh, South Miami Commissioner, Accused of Racism Over "40 Acres & a Pool!" Poster
South Miami is a strange town. So strange, in fact, that Commissioner Bob Welsh seems to fit right in. Around town he's known as "Bicycle Bob" for pedaling neighborhoods on a girl's blue cruiser distributing flyers. During the Mariel boatlift, he handed out his own Spanish-language joke books to newly arrived Cuban immigrants. He once let a Canadian bum live in his backyard on a beer-for-work program. He sings songs on YouTube about Turkey Point. Oh, and he's a bigot.
That last part, at least, is according to several people in South Miami's small but bizarre political world. They accuse the commissioner of racism for a pool poster he made that plays off the infamous Reconstruction-era broken promise that freed slaves would receive "40 acres and a mule." But Welsh says it was made with the best intentions.
"It was supposed to be a celebratory poster for the pool, for the groundbreaking of the pool," he says. "One that had soul."
South Miami has a long and storied African-American history -- especially the neighborhood of Williamson, which was named after the area's first black landowner, Marshall Williamson.
Like elsewhere in Miami, however, segregation used to split South Miami down the center: separate and very unequal. Beginning in the 1970s, black leaders pushed for politicians to approve a public swimming pool open to everyone.
Earlier this year, Welsh and other city officials finally secured the funds to go ahead with plans to build the pool.
But Welsh's enthusiasm has landed him in hot water. He says the poster and its "40 acre" reference was intended as a nod to the neighborhood's long struggle to get a pool, not a knock on race.
"For 45 years, politicians in South Miami have been playing football with a pool and promising the Williamson community a pool, only to never deliver," Welsh says. "I thought that somebody needed to do a flyer letting South Miami residents celebrate the fact that after 45 years of being promised a pool, they got a pool."
He came up with the phrase "40 Acres & a Pool!" as well as the image of a floating mule, and had a friend draw the poster.
Welsh then printed five copies and gave them to friends to get their advice on whether it was off-color. Only one, a black barber named Rodney Williams, objected.
Welsh says he promised Williams he wouldn't put out the poster. But it was too late.
"The guy did me the favor of putting it out," Welsh says of Williams, who could not be reached by New Times before publication.
"I did not put it out," Welsh says. "He put it out. And it went viral."
Viral might be an overstatement, but the pool poster did make waves when it was posted on a local blog.
"As a 3rd Generation African American South Miamian I am VERY OFFENDED by this picture drafted by Commissioner Welsh," Deltravis Lamont Williams wrote. He then lambasted white South Miami politicians who, he said, viewed the pool as a "gift" to black residents.
"WHAT A SLAP IN THE FACE to the VAST MAJORITY of us in the Marshall Williamson community that OWN OUR HOMES and WORK for a living," Williams wrote. "I plan on addressing this at this Tuesday's Commission meeting. IF ANYONE continues to make EXCUSES and ASSOCIATE themselves with Bob, [Commissioner] Walter [Harris] and others that believe and support this train of thinking.... I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM."
Welsh believes that political opponents are blowing the controversy out of proportion, but nonetheless says he's sorry over the incident.
"I am very sorry that I offended anybody," he says. "If I do cross-cultural humor, it's gotta be unanimously approved of. That's what I was trying to do by going to Rodney Williams."
"When I told Rodney Williams about it, why didn't he let it rest?" Welsh asks. "I did. He made a calculated political decision here."
Bicycle Bob says he expects "to get [his] ass chewed out by people who are offended" during a commission meeting Tuesday night. In the meantime, he's been dealing with the setback the only way he knows how: by putting out more flyers.
Seven hundred of them, to be exact. Each one an apology.
"I apologize, I apologize, I apologize," he says. "Next time I will not let the copy out of my hand."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.