Missouri has cast a Black woman as the face of a new tourism campaign four years after the NAACP issued a travel advisory urging Black people to take caution when visiting the state because of discrimination concerns.
The Missouri Division of Tourism recently introduced "Mo," a smiling Black woman, in a campaign full of photos, videos and even games. The division's director, Stephen Foutes, said in a news release that Mo represents "Missouri and everything we have to offer visitors in our state."
More than 200 actors with Missouri ties auditioned for the role, and Foutes said the state is "proud to feature an African American and Missouri native in this campaign to welcome future visitors to Missouri," according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The state chapter of the NAACP, however, issued an advisory in June 2017 that urged Black people "to travel with extreme CAUTION“ because “Race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri.“ The advisory came three years after the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a white police officer sparked days of unrest in Ferguson.
The advisory noted that Black people in Missouri are 75 percent more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by law enforcement. It also cites the passing of a bill that made it difficult to sue for discrimination and referred to the recent deaths of Black men in confrontations with law enforcement, including Tory Sanders in 2017, a Black inmate at a rural jail who died after a white law enforcement officer pressed his knee onto Sanders' neck.
The state attorney general at the time, Josh Hawley, now a U.S. senator, and the current attorney general, Eric Schmitt, declined to file charges in Sanders' death. Both are Republicans.
The national NAACP echoed the advisory's warning two months after the state chapter did so, a first in the organization's long history.
Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel acknowledged the state’s attempt to think “inclusively” with the casting decision for the tourism campaign, according to the Post-Dispatch. But he said the advisory will remain in effect until the state takes meaningful steps to address "the systemic abuses affecting people of color.”
“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 and the Missouri Division of Tourism did not immediately respond to requests from NBC News for comment.
Mo is featured on the Visit Missouri website in a series of situations and outfits — including "Outdoor Mo," "Family Fun Mo," "Culture Mo," "Road Trip Mo," and more. A YouTube video for the campaign showed Mo climbing out of bed and stepping into a camping scene before enjoying a roller coaster. Visitors are encouraged to play an interactive game on the website to "Find Your M-O."
Ashley Santana, who plays Mo, is an actress, model and singer in St. Louis, according to the Fox News-affiliate KTVI. NBC News was not able to locate contact information for the actress.
Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for the travel website Explore St. Louis, applauded the state for casting a Black woman, and defended the state as "welcoming and inclusive," The Post-Dispatch reported. However, he noted that the NAACP's advisory has damaged the state's tourism industry.
“Do we want to improve our reputation and move beyond what was represented in that travel advisory?” Hall said. “You bet.”