School board votes to paint over historic high school mural

Alumni have threatened to sue over removal of frescoes depicting slavery, death of Native Americans

A mural inside of George Washington High School that depict slaves and conquerors towering over an apparently dead Native American will be painted over, the San Francisco school board decided in a unanimous vote Tuesday.

The vote came after months of heated public debate over the merits of the “Life of George Washington” mural, a 13-panel fresco painted in 1936 by New Deal-era artist Victor Arnautoff.

Proponents of its removal say the images are inappropriate and traumatizing for youth at the school, while opponents say the mural is a critique of the darker parts of U.S. history and that altering it would be a form of censorship. Some have threatened legal action.

School board members on Tuesday were presented with three options — cover the mural with panels or textile, or paint over it.

District staff recommended Thursday to cover the mural with solid panels — a plan that was initially supported by Board president Stevon Cook, as well as commissioners Jenny Lam and Rachel Norton.

However, Commissioner Mark Sanchez pushed for the mural to be painted over, heeding calls from the school’s community and indigenous advocates to remove the mural permanently. His amendment ultimately gained full support by the board.

“As a therapist and social worker, my responsibility is [to ensure] students feel safe at their schools today,” said Commissioner Faauuga Moliga, who called the images “hurtful.”

“These conversations I have as a person of color with my kids, it’s very real. If we have to go to court [over this] then we have to go to court,” said Moliga. “I’m behind the community that would like to support safe spaces. I would like the murals to be painted down.”

Because of the historical significance of the mural, an environmental review evaluating the impact of painting over the murals must first be prepared and approved. According to district staff, painting over the mural would take up to a year — longer than covering it with panels.

Should painting over the mural take an “unreasonable” amount of time, the district could still opt to cover it with panels. Sanchez indicated that three years would constitue “undue delay.”

San Francisco Unified School District staff previously estimated that painting over the mural completely would take three years and cost the district around $600,000, while temporarily covering parts of it with solid panels or textile would range between $375,000 and $825,000. Funding would likely come from the district’s deferred maintenance program or general obligation bond program.

Critique of the mural dates back to the 1960s, when a student wing of the Black Panther Party and the high school’s black student union called for the mural to be covered up, deeming it offensive to black and native students.

Continued advocacy resulted in a series of response murals called “Multi-Ethnic Heritage” inside the school by San Francisco artist Dewey Crumpler, who is black, in the 1970s.

In recent years, parents and students at the school as well as members of the local Native American community renewed calls to address imagery in the mural that they said is inappropriate and traumatizing for the school’s black and brown youth in the present day.

“Art is used as a form to spark discussions — this mural doesn’t provide this. It’s over 50 years old and doesn’t fit or represent the district’s vision to provide safe and supportive schools,” said Tracy Brown Gallardo, of the Mission Peace Collaborative. “It depicts violence and triggers emotional trauma, which may get in the way of student learning. Violence in any form has no place in our schools.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the group called on the district to keep a digital archive of the mural and paint white the actual piece inside of the school’s lobby ahead of the first day of school of the 2019-2020 academic year.

They also asked for the creation of a “school and community-based committee” that would decide what type of artwork, if any, should replace the “Life of George Washington” mural.

The conflict comes amid a national debate about the preservation of historic monuments, including those commemorating the Civil War.

Last fall, San Francisco’s 124-year-old “Early Days” statue, which showed a fallen Native American at the a Catholic missionary, was removed after members of the Native American community challenged it as racist and city leaders reached a near-unanimous vote to take it down.

Last March, the school board voted against a nomination to make George Washington High School a historic landmark because such a designation would make covering the mural more difficult.

Those vying to preserve the mural — a group that included the high school’s alumni association, historians and advocates for the arts, as well as progressive leaders such as former supervisor Matt Gonzalez — have likened altering the mural to “white-washing” history.

Supporters of the mural have accused their counterparts of having missed Arnautoff’s intentional critique of Washington as a slave owner, and say the mural is meant to provoke “thoughtful discussion” around issues such as slavery, genocide and manifest destiny.

“Arnautoff was a communist artist. If anything, he was a champion or ally for the oppressed, for the mistreated and enslaved. He was stealthily putting in symbols [into the mural] to bring attention to America’s dark history,” said Lope Yap Jr., president of the GWHS alumni Association. “Those in opposition can’t respect, appreciate or understand that.”

Some recommended that the school board establish a “multimedia display” of sorts in the school’s lobby to give context to the mural’s imagery and intent.

A petition to “save the murals” received over 1,000 supporting signatures as of Tuesday.

The GWHS alumni association has previously stated that it plans to sue should the mural be painted over. On Tuesday, Yap said the group still plans to make good on that promise.

“There are all kinds of options for us. We will pursue those options, whatever they are,” said Yap. “If [the board] does something so reprehensible, we will respond.”

No matter, a majority of the school board members agreed said it was time to usher in a new chapter in history.

“The fact that there is a majority [advocating] to keep this is no argument. We would still have slavery and not have the right to vote if we went with the majority,” said Commissioner Gabriela Lopez.

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect that the district board directed staff to paint over the entire mural and not only parts of it, as The Examiner initially reported.

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