a photo of murals of George Washington's life and legacy inside San Francisco high school.
Painted in the 1930s, the mural of George Washington's life inside a San Francisco high school has become part of a national debate over the meaning of public art. Sarah Holder/CityLab

At a public viewing of a 1930s mural depicting the life and legacy of George Washington, San Franciscans argued about preservation, racism, and erasure.

Updated: August 19, 2019 On August 13, the San Francisco Board of Education voted not to paint over the mural, but to cover it from view.

SAN FRANCISCO—More than 100 people crammed shoulder to shoulder in a high school entryway, gazing up at the scenes of George Washington’s life. Here was the first president in Mount Vernon, flanked by the slaves he owned. There he was again, directing a battalion of soldiers westward. At the end of his outstretched finger, white frontiersmen with guns marched past the corpse of a Native American man, lying face down.

Every school day, the students who attend George Washington High School must march by him, too.

The painting, vivid and violent, is part of a series of 13 Depression-era murals called “Life of Washington,” painted on the walls of the San Francisco high school in 1935 and 1936 by the artist Victor Arnautoff. Funded by the Works Progress Administration, Arnautoff’s mural was designed to present a more complete vision of the country’s first president, for whom the school was named: Arnautoff painted Washington as a flawed leader who restricted the freedom of slaves he owned even as he fought for the freedom of the country. But it has been condemned in the years that followed for its realistic—and horrific—depictions of African American slaves in bondage.

(Sarah Holder/CityLab)

Calls to remove the art have echoed for the past half a century. In 1974, after protests from the Black Panthers, artist Dewey Crumpler, who is African American, was commissioned to paint three vibrant “response murals” in the school, entitled “Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian, Native/Latin American.”

But the protests returned this year, this time from a group of activists who told the San Francisco School Board that Arnautoff’s mural normalized racism and demeaned students of color. In July, the board voted unanimously to paint over the mural, a task that is estimated to cost $600,000. That figure accounts for the legal fees the board expects to accrue. (Lope Yap Jr., the vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, has already threatened to sue.)

The controversy has echoes of the struggle over Confederate monuments in many U.S. cities; many see the mural as racially insensitive, while defenders of the work insist that the board has a responsibility to “preserve history.” A vigorous stream of op-eds and letters-to-the-editor have argued the case. At a time when Americans are being confronted almost daily by new illustrations of the dangerous implications of racist words and images, the debate over what this 83-year-old painting is really trying to tell viewers has become a national issue.

On a blustery Thursday afternoon last week, that debate moved the the high school’s lobby, which was open for a two-hour public viewing of the work. Most of the attendees wanted to preserve the murals, saying proposals to “whitewash” part of or all of it would amount to censorship, and that keeping it up could facilitate more “teaching moments.”

“We have to accept our history, and fight for what’s right, and keep the past in our brains so we can move forward,” said Wendy Barkman, a former high school teacher. “I understand the pain that people may have experienced walking by these murals, but they’re painted with a purpose of revealing a past, not glorifying it.”

That’s the same argument made by Harvey Smith, the president of the Board of Trustees for the National New Deal Preservation Association. Arnautoff, he says, was just too far ahead of his time. “The textbooks have not caught up with him,” he said. “What I’d like to see the School Board do is say, hey, he pointed something out that we have yet to correct. Let’s deal with our curriculum.”

The question of whether the mural extols or contextualizes the history of enslavement of African Americans and murder and stereotypical depiction of Native Americans has evoked differing, but visceral, reactions from the community.

Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant and ardent Communist, painted the scenes to denounce America’s history of racism, many critics and historians say, and to hold viewers to remembering it. New York Times critic Roberta Smith recently called the murals “among the most honest and possibly the most subversive of the W.P.A. era.” With this work, which had to slip past an approval committee, the artist managed to “discreetly—even gently—insert slavery and the Indian genocide into his murals without sensationalizing them,” Smith wrote. (Whether any depiction of slavery can be “gentle” is up for debate.) “These are among the scars on this country that every American—schoolchild or adult, of any race—should learn about in detail, keep learning about and never forget.”

(Sarah Holder/CityLab)

New Deal preservationist Smith, who’s also a former teacher in the Oakland Public School District, says that the murals have been misrepresented in the current conversation. “The mural-distorters also say that this is hurtful to children,” he said. “Students in the inner city aren’t upset by symbols on the wall so much as they’re upset by what they see daily on the streets. That’s the real issue here.” When an English teacher at George Washington High School assigned nearly 50 freshmen to write about Arnautoff’s art, she told the New York Times that “[o]nly four favored removal.”

But Jennifer Wilson, writing in The Nation, argues that black and Native American viewers don’t need a mural to confront the realities of history, many of which have followed them into the present. “[T]o hang [the] argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders,” she wrote. “In reality, the Arnautoff mural is part of a long tradition of well-intentioned white art that over-relies on images of racial violence to call for racial justice.” That, ironically, may be what it memorializes best, she writes.

Linda Fadeke Richardson, a longtime San Francisco resident who came to the Thursday viewing, agrees with Wilson’s interpretation. “The depictions that you saw—the rifles, the dead Indians, the subservient African Americans—those are the kinds of images that persist today on murals, and they also persist in the media,” she told me. “It’s condescending, and dehumanizing … I don’t think there are any educational merits. Our education institution is supposed to empower.”

In a statement posted on Medium, a group of San Francisco educators, Teachers 4 Social Justice, wrote that regardless of Arnautoff’s original intent, students have clearly communicated the modern harm. “We do not seek to avoid history, and in fact we can’t; instead, we seek to make space for students to engage with their own histories in a manner that feels as dignified and human as possible,” they wrote. “As educators, we can neither advocate forcing students to view provocative art nor graphic historical images for the sake of preserving the artist’s intent or making kids ‘deal with’ history in a decontextualized image like a mural.”

Arnautoff’s grandson and great-great grandson were both there on Thursday to defend the artist and his work. “It’s here to educate,” the grandson, Peter Arnautoff, said. “It’s not here for the feelings of a few people.”

He said he hoped the mural would stay up in its entirety. Though the vote to paint over it had been unanimous, the School Board has said it is open to compromise—to cover it partially or temporarily with a black cloth, for example. (Since the mural is painted directly on the walls of the school, it can’t be easily moved.) On Thursday, several people proposed such alternatives.

Lynn Newhouse Segal, a retired attorney from San Francisco, proposed leasing or selling the space to a philanthropist or museum, who could open it to the public without exposing the kids. Several others recommended adding explanatory signage around the work.

Johnny Popovitch, an artist based in San Francisco, had another suggestion: Why not let the kids themselves create another response mural? “That seems like the most mature and healthy option,” he said. “Instead of destruction, creating an alternate or response which is in the form of the people who feel offended.”

(Sarah Holder/CityLab)

Since the high school was still closed for the summer on Thursday, Crumpler’s own response murals were just out of sight. But the work shows historical figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. breaking free from chains, gathered around flames, rising to the top of mountains. Crumpler told the New York Times that “to destroy Arnautoff’s murals would destroy his own work, too.”

Over the two hours, people cycled in and out of the increasingly claustrophobic space. One woman handed out copies of an article from the Revolutionary Community Party, USA entitled “Identity Politics Hustlers Sanitize ‘Life of George Washington.’” Others encouraged people to sign a “Save the Mural” petition. (Proponents of a measure that would make the School Board’s decisions to remove New Deal art subject to more public or government approval and effectively stop the wiping of “Life of Washington” needs 9,500 signatures to qualify for the November ballot, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.) In front of a hot mic, Fadeke Richardson argued with a former art teacher at the school, who said she’d used the mural in her lesson plans. Voices were raised. Sweat pooled on upper lips.

Originally, the showing was advertised only to those who requested to see the mural before it was taken down, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But San Francisco’s Datebook broke the news earlier this week, drawing the crowd. “I’m blown away,” Arnautoff said of the turnout.

A few paces away from a statue of Washington himself, Newhouse Siegel had cornered a few people to probe their thoughts. She wasn’t a journalist, she told me; just curious. The man across from her, who asked I only identify him by his first name, Tom, proposed making the murals part of a lesson on freshman students’ orientation day.

“You have different art historians coming in talking about the history: pros, cons, artistic history,” he said. “Someone could mention the WPA, and you could look at that from lots of perspectives.”

The woman next to him had come with her grandson, Jackson, because she thought the moment would be “historical.” She was shaking her head. “I’m a citizen of San Francisco, and the daughter of slaves,” she said. “I think it needs to be covered. I wouldn’t want my children to have to see this.”

Jackson, who is 10 years old, disagreed. “I think it could be [for] learning,” he told me. “This is not what you do: You do not put people in slavery.”

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