Community members get a look at controversial Works Progress Administration murals that date to the Great Depression at George Washington High School on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Movement to preserve controversial mural gets support from NAACP

Black community leaders say mural was intended to ‘critique American history’

Leaders from San Francisco’s black community on Tuesday announced their opposition to efforts by the school district to remove a New Deal era mural inside of George Washington High School considered offensive by some community members.

The mural was ordered painted over by the San Francisco Unified School District board in June at a projected cost of $600,000, in a decision that made national headlines. The mural, the “Life of Washington, depicts enslaved African Americans shucking corn and white colonizers towering over a dead Native American, among other things.

Supporters of the mural, which include members of the high school’s alumni association, have threatened to challenge the decision with a ballot initiative.

On Tuesday, leaders with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called on the school board to walk back its decision, echoing arguments made previously by arts preservationists and free speech advocates that likened the effort to censorship.

Calling the board’s vote “cotton candy politics,” the group’s president, Rev. Amos Brown, defended the mural as a crucial reminder of the unjust treatment of African Americans in San Francisco and across the nation.

“The persons who express concern over this mural were I’m sure well intentioned — but it would be majoring in minor things for us to do a whole lot of brouhaha regarding a mural that the original artist did because he wanted it to critique American history,” said Brown, who on Tuesday was joined by local NAACP Vice President Rev. Arnold Townsend.

“We cannot deny the fact that slavery was a reality in this country for 350 years…George Washington was complicit in the barbaric treatment of my ancestors,” Brown said.

Supporters of the 1936 mural by Russian painter Victor Arnautoff have argued that it was meant as a critique of manifest destiny and of Washington’s legacy, and that the imagery is a subtle expression of the Russian painter’s critical views of American history.

Columnist Noah Griffin, a former student at the high school, called the debate over the mural a historic intersection of art, censorship and history.

“Save it, learn from it, teach from it — they did not destroy the concentration camps [in Germany]— The ovens are preserved to serve as a ghastly reminder of a history vowed to happen never again,” said Griffin. “Those panels don’t honor Washington, they expose him.”

But school board leaders have said that in taking action on a decades-old debate over the mural’s value in the present day, they are aiming to support the experiences and activism of students.

At multiple school board hearing on the issue, teachers, parents and students said that the mural made them uncomfortable and had no place in a public high school.

School Board member Alison Collins said that the fight to save the mural is more about “power” than about the students confronting history in their lives each day.

“People want to maintain a narrative that makes them feel good and they are willing to override recommendations made by the community that is most harmed by the mural to do that,” said Collins.

“This is beyond even a political issue — this goes into our core [beliefs] that some people’s voices are more important than others. It doesn’t matter that we follow a democratic process, what matters is money and power and people are flexing,” Collins said.

Members of the school’s Black Student Union first called for the removal of the mural during the Civil Rights movement. At the time, the school district hired black artist Dewey Crumpler to paint a response mural at the school portraying the positive achievements of Native and African Americans.

Students, teachers and parent advisory councils at the school in recent months renewed calls to address the murals, which they said lack context, perpetuate racist stereotypes and are offensive to black and brown students who attend the school.

Crumpler, who attended another high school in the district, said he became aware of the mural in 11th grade and was initially “appalled” by the imagery, but added that after studying it, he learned to understand Arnautoff’s intentions.

“Arnautoff used symbolism — that’s images that serve much deeper meaning,” said Crumpler. “Art’s role is to make us uncomfortable with the status quo so we can be about this business of change.”

Crumpler said that when he completed his response mural some five decades ago, he asked that curriculum be created to give both murals context.

“My mural held controversy at bay — but now we have 21st century students. I’m hopeful that if this decision can be delayed, then the curriculum can update itself, that maybe now there can be a digital curriculum,” said Crumpler. “It could be updated so it would never be left static, but can be a part of the language of the present all the time.”

But Collins said that the argument for curriculum around the mural is “a red herring.”

“One high school isn’t teaching all kids about this issue,” said Collins, adding that she recently co-authored a resolution calling for the creation of a task force of parents, students and educators to review holidays and cultural events that inform school curriculum.

Another resolution passed by the board unanimously this summer would aim to ensure equity in the arts in regard to representation as well as access across the district.

“We are redirecting millions of dollars into schools to have one full time arts teacher in every K-5 Schools,” said Collins. “This changes how we think about art in every school, versus saving one mural that is painting a false representation of history.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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