Sparks Fly Under Controversial Washington H.S. Murals
By Thomas K. Pendergast
Opposing sides in the debate about destroying murals at George Washington High School (GWHS) squared off face to face under that same art on Saturday, May 4, in the school’s lobby, without social media or a Facebook buffer between them.
The school’s alumni association (GWHSAA) invited the general public to view the controversial murals and ask questions. Among those who showed up were the people calling for the destruction of the 83-year-old murals who wanted to make their voices heard.
The series of frescos were painted by artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era. The project was funded through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created many public schools and libraries throughout San Francisco and the nation, including building this high school. The artwork depicts the life of the first U.S. president, including images of Afro-American slaves that he owned and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation (Native American) warrior, with Washington standing off to the left and pointing the way forward.
Arnautoff was a Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Because of this association, Arnautoff’s art often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
This eventually brought him to the attention of the authorities, such as in 1955 when he made a lithograph that associated then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon with McCarthyism. At the time, Arnautoff was a professor at Stanford University. He came under the scrutiny of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee interrogated him and there were calls for his dismissal, but eventually the university decided against firing him.
Arnautoff moved to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, where he died in 1979.
His art at GWHS first drew criticism and controversy in the late 1960s, when black students objected to the depictions of slaves on the walls. There were calls for the murals to be covered over or destroyed. The SF Board of Education, however, compromised by hiring the black artist Dewey Crumpler in the early 1970s to paint a series of murals adjacent to the lobby showing more positive and uplifting images of non-white people.
Today, once again, his work is under scrutiny and some people are demanding the school remove or paint over his murals.
Opposing this, however, is the GWHSAA. They invited the general public to come out and view the murals on Saturday morning, May 4 and to ask any questions they might have. While several dozen people did so, some who showed up expressed their opinion that they wanted the murals to come down.
John Rothmann is the GWHSAA president. He started things off by asking if anyone in the crowd had questions about the murals. One woman asked why the murals have become so controversial. As Rothmann attempted to answer, however, he was cut off by Amy Anderson, a parent who sparked the latest effort to get rid of the murals after her son chose to attend the high school because of its music program.
“You know it is so common for a white man to be the first to speak, and it is also so common to be interrupted and shut down over and over again,” Anderson said. She identifies herself as registered member of the Ahkaamay Mowin tribe. “This is painful, to stand here and know that my child walks by these murals every day when he’s just trying to get a free and public education….”
She referred to the image of the dead First Nation warrior.
“That stereotype right here, ‘over my dead body,’ as if we have been all wiped out. As though that westward expansion really did happen and we’re all dead. Well we’re not all dead. Not all Indians are dead,” she said. “We need to have different murals for our children to walk by, rather than stereotyping African Americans as powerless slaves and these other stereotypes of American Indian people. Every child deserves to walk by something that is empowering and this is not empowering.”
Rothmann responded that Arnautoff’s goal in painting these murals was to demonstrate the injustices in American society and to tell the story of George Washington.
“You’ll note there’s no ‘cherry tree’ story here,” Rothmann said. “And so what Arnautoff did … was to paint in slavery and the injustices to First Nation people. That was the intent….
“We want these murals to demonstrate the injustices that have been done,” he explained. “Our goal is to make sure that these murals are used to teach.”
“They traumatize under the guise of educating,” Anderson responded. “That’s what the murals do.”
“There is no question that the injustices presented in these murals are injustices, and need to be addressed,” Rothmann said. “And how do you teach children? Not by erasing history but by confronting history.”
A woman asked why children are not taught about these things in middle school.
“That you have to ask the Board of Education,” Rothmann answered. “We want this to be dealt with. We want people to debate this. Do we believe in erasing these images? No.”
Annette Melville defended the murals by pointing to a couple of panels which had not been brought into the conversation at that point. One of the murals shows Washington handing his final will to his wife, Martha as a slave stands behind him watching. In that will, Washington freed the slaves he owned after his death.
“Washington actually learned, through these horrible injustices, and became a greater man by understanding that they’re wrong,” Melville said. “It’s a story of personal growth. And I think you have to really support our first president for overcoming his origins and becoming a greater man.”
Mariposa Villaluna was on the 13-member advisory committee that recommended painting over the murals. The vote was 10 in favor, two abstaining and one against. Media reports say the committee concluded that the murals do not represent “SFUSD values” and that the depictions in the murals “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.”
Villaluna said the committee also recommended making digital copies of the murals for future use as an educational tool.
She pointed out to the group that one of the First Nation people depicted in the mural has a couple of human scalps dangling from his waist but none of the white people in the mural carried scalps, even though they scalped as well.
“White people would scalp Native Americans and they would get paid per scalp,” Villaluna said. “That’s actually very stereotypical. While there’s certain people saying there are counter narratives, there’s also stereotypes within the mural…. So we thought these images were too, too harmful and we thought ‘you know what? We need to have them come down. We need to start over.’”
A woman in the crowd asked Villaluna if the committee had considered covering the murals with panels which could be moved when someone actually wanted to look at the murals.
“We didn’t see it that way,” she responded. “We all decided those are ideas we do not want to follow through with because we didn’t want anybody to see or re-traumatize or get PTSD again…. If the panels come down then they can be shown. We don’t want kids to go through the trauma anymore.”
A man asked how destroying the mural was different from burning books like the Nazis did back in the 1930s.
She answered that it was “very, very different.” As an example she brought up a recent mural controversy that happened at a charter school in Chula Vista, California, when a mural painted by a student showing President Donald Trump’s head impaled on a spear caused a severe public backlash. The school covered up the mural and then asked the artist to “modify it.”
Several days later the mural was repainted to remove the offending image.
“So I think that’s very interesting,” she said. “It’s how we establish the narrative.”
Rothmann said that although the Board of Education will make a decision on the murals, this will probably not settle the issue.
“Depending upon how it goes, and I think from both sides, if it goes the wrong way people are talking about lawsuits,” he said. “So I have a feeling this will be tied up for quite a while.”
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