These High School Murals Depict an Ugly History. Should They Go?

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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

SAN FRANCISCO — In one of the murals, George Washington points westward over the dead body of a Native American. Another depicts Washington’s slaves, hunched over, working in the fields of Mount Vernon. These images aren’t in a museum exhibition but on the walls of a public high school.

In this famously left-of-center city, liberals are battling liberals over these Depression-era frescoes that have offended some groups.

In the debate over the 13 murals that make up “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School, one side, which includes art historians and school alumni, sees an immersive history lesson; the other, which includes many African-Americans and Native Americans, sees a hostile environment.

Sometime this spring, the school board will make a decision about the future of the massive frescoes that extend from the school’s entryway through its lobby, confronting students as they climb the stairs to their classrooms.

The works were created in the mid-1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a social realist, for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.

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A detail from one of the panels, which shows Washington’s slaves working in the fields of Mount Vernon.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

But to Amy Anderson, a member of the Ahkaamaymowin band of Métis who has been a catalyst in the campaign to remove the murals, they represent “American history from the colonizers’ perspective.”

Around the country in recent years, people have been questioning historical representations in public art. Confederate statues and monuments have been dismantled. And in September, San Francisco city workers removed a statue symbolizing the Catholic Church’s mission-era subjugation of Native Americans. But the Washington High frescoes present a different issue. What they symbolize is open to interpretation. Some see a subversive message about Washington’s failings; others see his glorification.

When the frescoes were painted, critics praised Arnautoff’s work. But by the late 1960s, his art aroused anger. The school district responded by adding contemporary murals by the African-American artist Dewey Crumpler in 1974. The additional artwork did not satisfy Ms. Anderson and others opposed to the murals.

Stevon Cook, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, wants the paintings covered or removed. “The history we tell is very one sided,” he said. An African-American, he supports teaching this history in classrooms, but opposes “violent images that are offensive to certain communities,” he said.

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One of the most controversial murals depicts a dead Native American.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators said Arnautoff’s paintings remind her of “my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother who were beaten and hung from trees and told they were less than human.”

Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and coordinator of the school’s Indian Education Program, said Arnautoff’s “intent no longer matters.” The murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive,” she said.

Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center in San Marcos, said it is not worth saving the art if one native student “is triggered by that.”

Of the 2,004 students at Washington High, most are Asian-American; 89 are African-American and four are Native American. One of them is Ms. Anderson’s son, who, she said, “keeps his head down when he passes the murals.”

But scholars see something else in the murals: history. Robert W. Cherny, an emeritus professor of history at San Francisco State University and the author of “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,” points to the artist’s critique of Washington. “Arnautoff was a major artist, an artist on the left who was being very critical of Washington for owning slaves, and he was critical of the genocide of Native Americans.”

Gray Brechin, project scholar of the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It’s not a matter of erasing art, it’s erasing history itself.” He also spoke about the importance of preserving memories of atrocities. “The Jews never want what happened to them to be forgotten,” he said. “That’s why they have so many memorials.”

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The Russian-American artist Victor Arnautoff embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals for the Works Progress Administration.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Washington High School has one of the largest collections of W.P.A. art on the West Coast, but it’s still a high school. Sharing space with Arnautoff’s panels are student-drawn signs for “Walk Against Rape” and “2019 ELECTION,” which lists requirements including, “2.0 GPA … GOOD LUCK!”

Mikayla, a sophomore who was raising money for student government, said, “It’s not necessary to hide the truth.” She had inadvertently taped her sign reading “$2 Spam musubi” over the chest of Arnautoff’s dead Native American.

Matt Haney, a member of the board of supervisors and a former board of education member, said, “If you’re a Native American student and you walk into the lobby and see your ancestors being murdered in art, that feels dehumanizing.” He also has suggested renaming the school in honor of Maya Angelou, who studied there.

Late last year the school district organized a group called the Reflections and Action Committee to consider options for the artwork.

Some art historians and Washington High School teachers who spoke to the committee in favor of the frescoes said they felt uncomfortable expressing their views. “There was a feeling of animosity in the air,” John M. Strain, an English teacher and graduate of Washington High, said. His students, he said, “feel bad about offending people but they almost universally don’t think the answer is to erase it.”

Marianne Philipp, the school librarian, also spoke because, she said, “It’s my job to champion intellectual freedom. It’s disturbing to me that this is under discussion.”

After hearing from both sides, the committee issued a statement that said the artwork “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and does not represent the San Francisco school’s “values of social justice.”

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When the frescoes were painted, critics praised Arnautoff’s work. By the late 1960s, his art aroused anger.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

In February, eight committee members voted to recommend that the school district remove Arnautoff’s frescoes, two were undecided and one voted to save them. To remove them would be to destroy them because moving them would be too costly. The committee said the frescoes could be archived digitally.

Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, cast the sole vote to save the frescoes. “There are not many people whose politics are left of me,” Mr. Yap, a filmmaker, said. “If they succeed, this would be book burning in Germany in the 1930s.”

Mark Berger, a Washington High alumnus and a sound engineer, said digitizing the frescoes, is not an acceptable solution. “The thing about murals is that they’re out there for anyone to see who walks by. It catches your attention. It may cause you to think about things you wouldn’t think about. It’s the artist reaching out to you rather than you seeking out the message,” he said.

Barbara A. Brewer, an English teacher at the school, assigned 49 freshmen to write essays about the frescoes. Only four favored removal. One student wrote, “The fresco shows us exactly how brutal colonization and genocide really were and are. The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders.”

The school board will take up the issue in the coming months. If it votes to destroy the murals, Mr. Yap said the alumni association would file a lawsuit to stop it.

This week, Ms. Anderson recalled a discussion she had had with her son about attending the school with the murals. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry Mom; that’s not going to be up there forever.’”

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the grade of the students assigned an essay about the frescoes. They are freshmen, not sophomores.

Follow Carol Pogash on Twitter: @cpogash

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