A proposal to cover up or remove a controversial mural at George Washington High School that depicts slaves and explorers towering over an apparently dead native American prompted a fiery public debate Tuesday.
Ahead of a vote by the San Francisco school board scheduled for next week, a working group presented school district leaders with three options for the “Life of George Washington” mural: cover it with either textile or two panels, or paint over it.
Each option would cost the San Francisco Unified School District between $300,000 and $800,000, according to district staff.
But the proposals drew an intense emotional response on both sides at the public hearing. Those advocating to keep the 13-panel fresco by New Deal era artist Victor Arnautoff visible to the high school’s community — a group that included alumni and advocates for the arts — said the effort amounts to censorship and likened the mural’s removal to “erasing history.”
“Shielding Native American and African American youth from harm” by “defacing this mural has nothing to do with the fight to eradicate racial oppression,” said supporter Andrea Morell.
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of George Washington High School’s Alumni Association, said that as a member of the working group, he was the only person to vote against covering the mural. Yap said he thought the process was “slanted from the start” and called on the school board to hold off on making a final decision.
“Those who question Arnautoff’s work will hopefully appreciate his artistic value. He was an ally,” said Yap.
“This is history. We should learn from history, not cover it up,” said an alumni of the high school. Others argued that Arnautoff “told the truth” about Washington’s legacy, including unsavory details such as his being a slave owner.
But those fighting to take the mural down — a noticeably more diverse group that included students and teachers at the Richmond District high school as well as native and African American elders — disagreed.
They argued that the mural traumatizes black and brown youth, and that it has no place in a school setting. Many urged the board to usher in a new chapter in history, one in which the voices of the oppressed are validated.
“Our people are still here. No one has the right to tell us as native people or our young people who walk those halls everyday how they feel. You’re not in those shoes — you don’t feel what they feel unless you are living it,” said Paloma Flores, SFUSD’s Native American education program coordinator.
The conflict reflects a larger debate about preservation of historic monuments, including those commemorating the Civil War, and has made national headlines.
Last March, the school board voted against a nomination to make George Washington High School a historic landmark; such a designation would make covering the mural more difficult.
Efforts to remove the mural were renewed late last year after advocates called for an overhaul of the district’s history curriculum and textbooks to reflect the achievements of Native American communities and to give a more accurate picture of history.
Earlier this year, the school board convened a working group to assess the process of removing the mural, including legal implications.
But speakers at Tuesday’s hearing said that controversy over the mural dates back to the 1970s.
“In 1975, there were a couple of native students that attended [the high school] and …they attempted to have this mural taken down then and at the time were shut down. This is nothing new,” said Ohlone Tribal Chair Dee De Manzanares Ybarra.
Not all school board members spoke at the hearing, but some appeared to favor covering up the mural.
Commissioner Gabriela Lopez pointed out that “the majority of people” arguing to keep the mural “are not representative of the people who are affected.”
“Protecting property over people is white supremacy culture, bottom line,” she said.
Board President Stevon Cook described taking a tour of a plantation in New Orleans in 2015, during which he learned that most plantation builders were enslaved master architects. Their stories aren’t told in murals, he said.
“I think my biggest issue about this discussion is [that] when I ran for school board this wasn’t the type of change I wanted to make,” said Cook, adding that the decision to remove the mural was an “easy” one for him. “The type of change I want to make is ensuring that more young people have their lives transformed as a result of this district.”