A famous mural featuring the image of Bill Cosby with many other prominent African American cultural icons has been repainted without Cosby’s image. On the exterior of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a restaurant central to African American culture in the Washington, D.C. area, the faces of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, music icon Prince, and civil rights champion Harriet Tubman can all still be seen. However, the face of the aging comedian and alleged sexual predator is notably absent.
Originally painted in 2012 by local artist Aniekan Udofia, the mural was redone after an online poll of customers was run. Cosby did not make the cut, according to owner Virginia Ali.
Cosby has been one of the longest and most celebrated customers of Ben’s Chili Bowl, dating back to the 1950s when he was still in the Navy. He became friends with Virginia and her late husband, the “Ben” of Ben’s Chili Bowl, who passed in 2009. Outside of the historic restaurant, a sign reads “Thanks in part to the patronage of entertainer Bill Cosby, Ben’s has become a national landmark.”
“That’s not the man I knew,” Virginia says regarding the sexual assault allegations against Cosby. “It’s one of those ‘he said, she said’ things and there’s no point getting into it because I wasn’t there. I feel badly for everyone involved.”
Aside from Cosby’s regular patronage, Ben’s Chili Bowl has a special place in historical African American culture in the D.C. area. When Virginia and Ben first opened their doors, the city was still racially segregated. U Street, where Ben’s is located, was also known as “Black Broadway”, and was the heart of a burgeoning African American music culture and entrepreneurial spirit.
Following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968, Washington D.C. was engulfed in riots. But Ben’s Chili Bowl was asked by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) to stay open past curfew to serve police, firefighters, and other activists. Ben, an immigrant from Trinidad where Ture was born, agreed, and secured Ben’s Chili Bowl in its place in African American history.
Throughout the decades since, while many other businesses have closed their doors, Ben’s Chili Bowl has stood strong. Today, the restaurant is still a bustling business, and people regularly visit just to take picture of the mural and enjoy a “Half Smoke” – a sausage in a bun topped with onions, mustard, and Ben’s famous chili. It has been a destination of many prominent African American public figures and celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, then-President-Elect Barack Obama, and, of course, Bill Cosby.
Cosby’s removal from the mural follows the mistrial declaration last Saturday in Pennsylvania, when the jury deliberating could not reach a unanimous verdict on the allegations of sexual assault. The following Wednesday, artist Udofia unveiled the new mural in a ceremony with comedian Dave Chappelle among others. The mural had been expanded to feature 16 images, voted on by the public. Cosby’s face was the only omission, but it is in no way a personal slight, insists Virginia Ali. Photos of Cosby can still be seen inside the restaurant.
“Everybody’s welcome to Ben’s,” she says. “When you walk in the door, what you’ve done is left outside and we treat you as family, as a guest. We treat everyone with the same dignity and warmth. We don’t judge people here.”
[Featured Image by Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images]