The San Francisco Board of Education voted in June to remove a series of 13 murals titled The Life of Washington from a public high school in the city due to criticism of their historic depiction of slaves and Native Americans. Yet a brief public showing earlier this month drew more than a hundred people, most of whom expressed support for keeping the 83-year-old fresco panels in place.
Clelia Donovan, a lecturer in Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley, called the paintings depicting scenes from the life of President George Washington an “amazing work of art.” She expressed understanding for those who might feel negatively toward the murals but didn’t think that painting over them would “erase the causes of why they feel uncomfortable.”
Two panels in particular have drawn criticism since as far back as the late 1960s. “Mount Vernon” contains images of slaves working at Washington’s estate in Virginia. Another panel, “Westward Vision,” shows white pioneers stepping over the body of a fallen Native American as they forge ahead into the Western frontier.
Victor Arnautoff, a San Francisco–area artist and student of the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, painted the Great Depression–era murals. Supporters argue Arnautoff’s work was a political commentary on some of the nation’s troubling roots. Critics disagree, insisting that the images are racist and don’t belong in school hallways.
“Kids don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning,” George Washington High School student Kai Anderson-Lawson, who is Native American, said at a school board meeting on June 18.
Several African American leaders in the community have spoken out in favor of preserving the murals. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, called on the school board to reconsider its decision, arguing that painting over them was like erasing history.
Due to the public’s reaction, the board voted Tuesday to preserve the murals digitally so that historians can study them and plan to install solid panels over the works of art instead of painting over them. —Laura Edghill