San Francisco school board reverses plan to paint over mural showing slaves and violence

Vivian Ho in San Francisco
Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

The San Francisco school board has reversed its decision to paint over a series of graphic murals featuring a dead Native American and black slaves, following national opposition to the earlier vote that board members said would have righted a historical wrong.

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But Tuesday’s 4-3 vote to obscure the artwork at the George Washington high school with panels, instead of painting over it, was a compromise that pleased few, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Some current and former students of color maintained that the murals’ depiction of violence without context was harmful. Others said any effort to cover up the art was censorship.

School board president Steven Cook said: “Where we all agree is that the mural depicts the racist history of America, especially in regards to African Americans and Native Americans. It is important that we all share the agreement and acknowledgement of racism, discrimination, and the dehumanizing of people of color and women in American history.”

The artwork at the San Francisco high school has faced heightened scrutiny since April, when an ad hoc committee recommended that it be archived and removed. The 1,600 sq ft New Deal-era art installation, painted by the Russian emigre Victor Arnautoff, depicts the life of Washington in 13 scenes and spans the space of the school’s staircase and lobby.

In one, Washington stands over a map of a young America while pointing westward as four white settlers with rifles walk over the body of a dead Native American. At the dead man’s feet, another Native American, wearing a headdress, shares a pipe with an armed white man.

Since the June decision to paint over the murals, the issue has attracted national attention. The actor and activist Danny Glover, who attended Washington high school in the 1960s, aligned with the local NAACP chapter in opposing the painting over of the murals.

“To destroy them or block them from view would be akin to book burning,” he said. “We would be missing the opportunity for enhanced historic introspection that this moment has provided us.”

Yet those in favor of covering the artwork have long argued that the murals depicted a violence for which the students received no context, allowing for unnecessary trauma without any sort of learning.

“I remember not having the emotional capacity in me to look up at the “Life of Washington” mural in my freshman year,” Kai Anderson-Lawson, an indigenous student at the school, said at the board meeting before the vote. “The mural is very hard to look at due to the fact that it paints my people as victims.