One of the 13 murals that make up “The Life of Washington” at George Washington High School in San Francisco.CreditCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
By Carol Pogash
In a compromise that did not appear to end the fight, the San Francisco Board of Education voted Tuesday night to conceal, but not destroy, a series of Depression-era school murals that some considered offensive to Native Americans and African-Americans.
The 4-to-3 vote, which came after a tense and emotional meeting, nullified the board’s earlier vote to paint over the murals, a decision that had brought widespread complaints of censorship.
Even though the murals would now be preserved, defenders of the artwork objected to the new decision to hide them from view. Jon Golinger, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, a group formed to preserve the murals, said that his group “would not yet rule out any legal or political options, including a possible initiative on the S.F. ballot.”
“While it is a step in the right direction to take permanent destruction off the table, we will continue to strongly oppose spending $815,000 to permanently wall off the murals so nobody has the choice to see them or learn from them,” he said.
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Those who contended the murals were too disturbing to students also left the meeting dissatisfied and in some cases angry. One school board member, Alison M. Collins, an African-American who wanted the murals destroyed or removed, said that she blamed “outside actors” who “dictate to our children, mine included, what they should see and the stories they should be told. This is not history; it is a remnant from a bygone era.”
The murals, a series of 13 frescoes titled “The Life of Washington,” were painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian émigré and a Communist, in the hallways of George Washington High School in the mid-1930s as the school was being built.
His frescoes were intended to be critical of the first president, and by extension the country’s treatment of African-Americans and Native Americans. Three of the panels are at issue: one showing Washington’s slaves at Mount Vernon, another showing a Native American with a scalp dangling from his waist, and a third showing a dead Native American at Washington’s feet.
In liberal San Francisco, residents are accustomed to fights over the cost of housing, tech-fueled gentrification and neighborhood homeless shelters. But the dispute over this artwork has been more heated and vitriolic than most.
Responding to complaints from Native Americans and others who said the paintings were racist and harmful to black and Native American students who saw them, the school board unanimously voted in June to paint over the murals.
But with pressure from local preservationists and attention from the national news media, the president of the school board, Stevon Cook, an African-American, wrote a new resolution that eliminated the plan to paint over the murals while assessing ways for them to be removed from public view “using solid panels” or other “materials, means or methods.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the N.A.A.C.P., which is in favor of keeping the murals on display, told the board, “It pains me that we have become complicit in a move to do a redaction of history.”
Gray Brechin, a historian and founder of the Living New Deal Project, accused board members of not understanding “what you’re looking at.” He called on people “to recall the school board.”
Earlier this week, the actor Danny Glover, a Washington High graduate, joined the coalition to save the murals and said that destroying or blocking them from view “would be akin to book burning.”
But their comments and those of other preservationists did not appear to have an effect on the vote.
Shortly before the meeting, Mark Sanchez, a school board member who does not want the frescoes to be visible, said, “This country began by justifying white supremacy through the dehumanizing of people of color. This is an example of that.”
He said in an interview that people who want to save the murals are putting “art over humanity.” He added, “If the murals depicted the Holocaust, they wouldn’t be in a public school.”
In an emotional speechexplaining his vote, one board member, Faauuga Moliga, said: “I don’t get why people are standing up for this. There are black and brown boys who are dying.”
Sharez Brown, a 16-year-old junior at George Washington High School who spoke to the board before the vote, said that the murals were “hurtful and harmful to many students.” She said that they “tell the history from the perspective of white people,” and added that “students should never have to hear ‘I’ll meet you at the dead Indian.’”