San Francisco School To Paint Over Historic George Washington Mural — For $600,000!
The San Francisco school system will shell out $600,000 to paint over a historic mural at a public school depicting the life of George Washington after school board members declared it was racist and “traumatizes students and community members.”
The 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural — painted 83 years ago — adorns several walls at George Washington High School, showing numerous Americana scenes. In one, white pioneers are seen standing over the body of an American Indian. In another, slaves are shown working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
“The mural is a fresco, which means it’s painted on the wall and can’t easily be removed. Painting it over won’t happen immediately. Should a lawsuit or other delay arise, it will be covered up until the issues are resolved. The board plans to digitally archive the mural,” the Associated Press reported. And if you’re wondering why painting it over could possibly cost $600,000, the AP said, “Most of the $600,000 earmarked for the project will go toward a required environmental review and to cover expected legal challenges.”
A San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) working group said the artwork “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression” and “doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered.”
“Two of the thirteen panels in the mural series have come under fire since the 1960’s for their controversial depictions of African-Americans and Native Americans,” the Richmond District Blog writes.
In one mural, entitled “Mount Vernon,” George Washington appears to be in conversation with another Caucasian man who gestures towards a seated African-American man holding corn, presumably a slave. In other parts of the mural, African-Americans are engaged in acts of manual labor like hauling large bales of hay and picking cotton in the fields, while Caucasian men are also laboring at other tasks with tools. Washington’s servant, who is pictured holding his horse, is also African-American. The mural is a clear depiction of slavery in the United States, and of George Washington as a slave owner.
The second panel, entitled “Westward Vision,” depicts Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers looking at George Washington as he points off in the distance, while he points with his other hand to a map. On the right side of the mural, as if carrying out Washington’s call for westward expansion, frontiersmen, depicted in greyscale unlike other figures in the mural, stand over the dead body of a Native American man, signifying the genocide of Native American life and culture.
In the bottom right of the “Westward Vision” panel, a frontiersman and Native American chief sit at a campfire smoking a peace pipe. On the ground at the chief’s feet is a tomahawk, symbolizing the disarming of Native tribes. Directly above the Chief’s headdress is a broken tree limb representing broken treaties made by the U.S. government with Native Americans, and broken promises made by settlers.
Reason magazine noted that the murals were intended to be controversial. “The truth is that George Washington High School’s mural is provocative by design. It was painted in 1936 by a Russian-American artist named Victor Arnautoff, who held leftist sympathies. Arnautoff did not wish to blindly celebrate Washington while ignoring the less savory aspects of the American founding, and thus he depicted the first president working his slaves and sending men to confiscate Native American lands. It was an attempt to remind students that history is a lot messier than what they read in class,” wrote Robby Soave.
“He put those ghastly gray pioneers literally walking over the dead body of an Indian to demonstrate that the settlement of the west was an act of conquest that involved the slaughter of Native Americans,” Robert Cherny, a San Francisco State University professor, told the school district’s board of education in 2018. “That was a very bold effort on his part to counter the kinds of textbooks that students were seeing.”
Soave noted that some people who attended a public hearing on the matter don’t seem to understand what a school does. ” ‘Why do we have to explain the pain caused by the visual offense that we see in that building that is supposed to be an institution for learning?’ asked one woman at a public meeting about the issue on Tuesday. ‘It’s not in a museum, it’s inside a school,’ lamented another speaker, who apparently did not understand the point of a school. ‘Our students, all of them, deserve better,’ ” Soave wrote.
Historian Fergus M. Bordewich told The College Fix in May that it is “a deeply wrongheaded habit to project today’s norms, values, ideals backwards in time to find our ancestors inevitably falling short.”
“It betrays a very troubling intolerance of art and the ambiguity of art and the aspirations of art,” he said. “It’s incredibly stupid if we try to erase history. It still happened, and you should argue about its meanings.”