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Black woman becomes face of Missouri tourism as ‘Mo’

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — A Black woman has become the face of Missouri’s tourism campaign, nearly four years after the NAACP warned travelers that their civil rights may not be respected if they visit the state.

The Missouri Division of Tourism kicked off the campaign Monday, describing the woman the agency dubbed Mo as “a character and tour guide of sorts.” She is featured in a promotional video hiking, watching a baseball game and riding a roller coaster. Pictures also show her posing as a Foodie MoBarbecue MoLake MoHistory Mo and more.

“Mo embodies Missouri and everything we have to offer visitors in our state,” Stephen Foutes, director of the Division of Tourism, said in the release.

But Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel said the group’s travel advisory would remain in effect until Missouri made “meaningful progress in the systemic abuses affecting people of color.” The state group warned travelers in June 2017to be careful while in the state  because of what it described as a danger that civil rights won’t be respected. The national NAACP took up the warning a couple of months later.

“I don’t quite understand where they’re going with the campaign, and why put a Black face on it,” Chapel said.

“Missouri is a place that has been marked by violence and Jim Crow,” Chapel said. “It’s good that they’re trying to think inclusively for people they should invite to the state,” but it’s also unfortunate when the government “hasn’t done anything to address those risks in a meaningful way.”

Ashley Santana is Mo in the Missouri Division of Tourism’s 2021 ad.

Ashley Santana, a St. Louis-based actress, model and soprano, plays Mo. She declined to comment through the agency that represents her.

In a statement, Foutes did not directly answer whether the casting decision was related to the NAACP advisory.

He said Visit Missouri, the tourism website that features Mo, “auditioned over 200 actors and actresses with strong ties to Missouri. As Mo came to life, we wanted to reflect the down-to-earth, easygoing and inviting personality of Missouri. … We’re proud to feature an African American and Missouri native in this campaign to welcome future visitors to Missouri.”

Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for Explore St. Louis, said efforts to position St. Louis and Missouri as warm and welcoming had become especially important since Michael Brown’s death in 2014 focused the nation’s attention on the region’s unresolved racial justice issues.

Though systemic change is still needed, Hall said, the casting of Santana “sends an important signal … that our state is proud to feature an African American woman as a representative, an ambassadress, for our state.”

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