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San Francisco School Board Backtracks on Decision to Destroy Controversial Murals

Above: Detail of The Life of George Washington, 1936, at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Above: Detail of The Life of George Washington, 1936, at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The San Francisco Board of Education voted four to three on Tuesday to cover up rather than destroy a series of Depression-era murals at George Washington High School that have divided public opinion. Titled The Life of Washington, the thirteen murals were created by Victor Arnautoff—a Russian-born artist who was commissioned to paint the works as part of a New Deal Initiative in the 1930s—and depict the founding US president in less than favorable light.

In addition to portraying Washington as a soldier, surveyor, and statesman, the murals also show him as slave owner—at the time of his death 317 slaves were living at Mount Vernon. At the time the works were produced, the fact that Washington had owned slaves was an uncomfortable fact that was often overlooked. Another mural shows him standing over the body of a deceased Native American, drawing attention to the country’s treatment of Indian nations at the time.

Many parents of students at the school have claimed that the works are offensive and that students shouldn’t have to walk passed them. Mark Sanchez, a school board member, told the New York Times that those who want to preserve the murals are putting “art over humanity.” He also argued that images of other historical events, such as the Holocaust, would never be in a public school.

The school’s Reflection and Action Working Group, an ad-hoc committee made up of students, faculty, local artists, historians, and members of the Native American community, was formed to assess the works. In April it determined that the work glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, and oppression and “perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias.” The commitee recommend their removal, and in July the board of education unanimously voted in favor of their recommendation. It also earmarked up to $600,000 for the project.

The vote was met with widespread backlash. Artists called the decision censorship. Historians argued that those who saw the works as offensive were misinterpreting the critical lens through which Arnautoff was viewing Washington. Preservationists worried that painting over them would prompt a movement to destroy other New Deal works. More than four hundred academics signed a petition protesting their destruction.

“Victor Arnautoff was far ahead of his time, and we have yet to catch up with him in terms of making school curriculum more inclusive and historically accurate,” said Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association. Leaders of San Francisco’s local NAACP chapter also protested plans to paint over the murals. Earlier this week, actor Danny Glover, an alumnus of the school, said that removing the works would be no different than burning books.

The question of what to do with the murals echoes the nationwide debate over the fate of Confederate monuments across the nation. On August 1, the school opened its doors to the public, allowing anyone who wanted to come view the murals access to the school from 1 PM to 3 PM. More than one hundred people crowded into the school’s lobby to confront Washington’s legacy.

August 16, 2019