A California school board has voted to paint over a mural of George Washington. Educators want to save it

Kristin Lam

A California school board has voted on the fate of an expansive mural dedicated to the life of George Washington: It's demeaning – destroy it.

Hundreds of educators from the Golden State and beyond are urging board members to change their mind.

Stretching 1,600 square feet, the 83-year-old mural at a public high school shows white colonists stepping over a dead Native American and slaves laboring at Washington's Mount Vernon estate. The artwork is suddenly a flashpoint as national debates continue on reparations and controversial names – even in mostly liberal California.

In voting unanimously on June 25 to paint over the 13-panel mural, the San Francisco Board of Education sided with students who say the depictions of slaves and Native Americans are degrading. But more than 500 academics have signed an open letter asking the district to reconsider, and they liken destroying the artwork to censoring ugly realities.

'A disservice to history'

Teachers can help build an understanding of the mural by putting it into context, said Stanford University art professor Enrique Chagoya. When Russian-American artist Victor Arnautoff created the mural in 1936, Chagoya said, critiques of Washington were uncommon.

The communist artist challenged the legacy of the first president by showing him as a slave owner and linking him to attacks against indigenous people for westward expansion, he said.

Beyond Washington, the mural criticizes the society built on land stolen from Native Americans and through the labor of slaves taken from the African continent, defenders say.

"If we cover it up and we whitewash it, not only are we doing a disservice to history, but we're also doing a disservice to those who suffered at the hands of European-descended Americans: slaves and Native Americans who were traumatized and killed," said Rachael Z. DeLue, a Princeton University professor of art history and American studies. "It's also the case that this isn't simply of the past. The legacies of slavery and federal policy about Native Americans live on in the present."

'Art should never be censored'

In this photo taken April 3, 2019, a pair of students walk past a historic mural that includes slaves and a dead Native American at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The San Francisco school board unanimously voted Tuesday, June 25, 2019, to destroy a controversial mural displayed in a public high school.

Chants of "bring it down" filled the district meeting room two weeks ago as people spoke in favor of removing the mural. Several mentioned it was about time; student protests have dated to the 1960s.

Paloma Flores, program coordinator for the district’s Indian Education Program, told the board Native American children continue to face trauma in their daily lives as the community faces issues including disproportionate rates of suicide.

A member of the Pit River Nation, Flores echoed other feelings that the mural evokes pain for African American and Native American students who must walk by it every day to get to class.

“It’s not a matter of censorship, it’s a matter of human right: the right to learn without hostile environments,” Flores said. "Even the best intentions do harm."

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Responding to requests for a welcoming school without the mural won't be cheap. Painting over it will cost at least $600,000, which includes an environmental impact assessment, officials said during the district meeting.

Ultimately, the board called its decision a form of reparations for the communities offended by the mural.

Academics such as Paul Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies and communications studies at University of California-Los Angeles, disagree. He said high school students should confront the harsh realities in the mural.

"I know it causes students to cringe, but that's the function of art," Von Blum said. "And art should never be censored."

Confederate differences

While slavery is accurately depicted in the mural, Von Blum said, some people today are hypersensitive about portrayals of African slaves.

Chagoya also pointed to increased polarization as a contributor to discussions about destroying the mural. He sad people are more quick to judge things as black or white.

Both said the mural controversy differs from debates about Confederate monuments. Statues of Confederate generals glorify a racist history, Von Blum said, while the mural critiques it.

Plus, DeLue said, most Confederate monuments aren't significant works of art discussed in art history lectures. Meanwhile, the artwork at George Washington High School was created by the most prominent muralist in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time.

The federal government also sponsored the mural's creation, DeLue said, as part of the New Deal's historic Federal Art Project – adding another layer of value.

A 'more inclusive' learning environment

Instead of painting over the mural, some academics who signed the petition suggest the district add detailed descriptions about the mural and Arnautoff's intentions. Providing context can support understanding, Chagoya said, as teachers try to transform student's painful reactions into visions for change.

Possibilities also include constructing blinds that can be dropped over the mural, DeLue said. When teachers bring students to parts of the mural for history lessons and constructive critical dialogue, they could then raise the blinds.

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"One cannot teach history, American history or world history, without confronting violence and trauma," DeLue said. "But that doesn't mean that students have to be bombarded with it. So the solution, I think, would involve acknowledging the right of a Native American or African American student to be upset by it."

In an email, District Board President Stevon Cook directed USA TODAY to an editorial he wrote on the vote to paint over the mural.

The decision made two weeks ago is the end of the conversation, Cook wrote. Noting the enslavement of his ancestors and the young people of color who urged the board to take it down, he disputed comparisons of destroying the mural to whitewashing the past.

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"To somehow think painting over this mural is an attempt to disengage in teaching the truths of America’s history across our schools is completely outrageous," he wrote. "Our students should learn about the evolution of the country, how in our founding documents blacks were considered only three-fifths human, how Jim Crow laws rolled back the progress of the reconstruction era, and how the federal housing policy of redlining locked blacks families out of building wealth across generations.

"I don’t see any reason why we can’t tell the truth about America’s history after we cover up these murals in response to student-led demands for a more inclusive and safe learning environment."

In the future, Cook suggested the board may consider commissioning artwork that shows empowering stories of African Americans and Native Americans instead of the the mural, which "relegate(s) our people as a dehumanized subplot in the life of a wartime general."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Francisco mural: Academics push to save George Washington artwork