(Editor’s note: this is an updated version of the story that ran in the March issue of the Richmond Review newspaper. A minor error has been corrected.)
By Thomas K. Pendergast
New information has emerged that the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education broke a deal decades ago, setting the stage for the present controversy about the George Washington High School murals. A 1968 agreement indicates that a deal was reached to keep the murals in place but include plaques beneath each one explaining the history left out of the murals, which was not done.
The agreement also included a plan to paint a new alternative mural, which was eventually commissioned and completed.
The school’s alumni association recently proposed six points to resolve the issue.
Last August, the board, on a 4-3 vote, backed off a previous unanimous vote in June to cover more than a dozen “Life of George Washington” murals with paint, thus permanently destroying the artwork. Now the plan is to preserve them but cover them over with some kind of solid material.
The artwork is controversial because it includes images of Afro-American slaves that Washington owned, and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation warrior, with the first president standing off to the side and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 83-year-old murals say these images are not appropriate for a high school because they traumatize some students.
Artist Victor Arnautoff painted the series of frescoes in the school’s lobby area as the building was completed 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 George Washington High School.
A Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, Arnautoff practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
Members of the Reflections and Action Committee which called for the destruction of the murals, however, say the artwork does not represent SF Unified School District values and that the depictions in the mural “glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy and oppression.”
Because covering the murals with panels would require an Environmental Impact Report, plus materials, the project would likely cost between $645,000 and $825,000 and take about a year to complete.
The high school’s alumni association recently proposed six ideas to avoid all this:
First, recognize that this mural series is “one of the finest collections of New Deal art in the entire nation;” retain the existing Arnautoff and Crumpler murals and also honor the 1974 commitment to muralist Dewey Crumpler to preserve Arnautoff and Crumpler murals into the future; prepare mural plaques which provide mural education and explanations; establish annual mural and art teaching week, to begin with an all-day assembly and workshop; establish a $500,000 endowment to protect the murals and create and fund a special permanent scholarship program for five graduating seniors annually; recommend the GWHS Alumni Association and the SF Unified School Board jointly accept and approve the proposed “six-point GWHS Mural Teaching and Educational Program.”
“These recommendations represent a package or suite of programmatic actions that, taken together, can provide the students, George Washington High School faculty and staff, school board and the entire community a working and lasting solution to the challenges before us all,” they wrote to the school board, in a letter signed by alumni president John Rothmann and vice president Lope Yap.
Meanwhile, archived in a box within the San Francisco Public Library system are several documents which shed some light on the history of this controversy.
There is, for example, a small paragraph in a program from the 25th anniversary celebration of Washington High School in 1961 which clearly states “the famous murals in the main lobby were the source of another famous tradition. ‘Meet you under the dead indian’ is a familiar sound you will hear.”
But it is a copy of a letter from Nov. 4, 1968, that opens up a window into the time of the previous controversy involving these murals, when some students wanted them to go.
The report is from Herbert R. Simon of the district’s Department of Art Education to the superintendent at the time, Dr. Robert Jenkins. It details a series of meetings between board members and students from the Black Students Union about the murals.
According to the report, a board member offered that the “slave panel” be covered over and that a supplementary mural be planned for another location in the school.
“The student reaction to these proposals was negative,” the report said. “They felt that the slave panel should be left uncovered and that the other panels should be covered. The reason for this suggestion was that the slave panel was the only panel that ‘told the truth.’ The other panels did not tell the truth because the contributions of the Black Man were omitted. The reaction to a supplementary panel was also not acceptable.
“A short discussion followed on the Arnautoff murals and how they did not tell the full story. One of the student representatives suggested that a plaque be placed under the mural pointing out the ‘lacks’ in the mural. This suggestion was well received and much discussion followed. It was finally recommended that a plaque be placed under each panel. The information to be included on the plaque would be prepared by students under the supervision of a consultant. Several Black historians were mentioned as possible consultants. …
“At the close of the meeting the above notes were reviewed and it was agreed that the following course of action would be taken: the murals will remain as they are; plaques will be placed under each panel of the mural. The content of the plaque will be prepared by the students under the direction of a consultant; a supplementary mural will be planned for a suitable location in the school. The planning for this mural will include the entire student body, under the direction of a faculty sponsor selected by the Black students.”
The artist eventually chosen to paint the alternative murals, Dewey Crumpler, recently commented on that time and the years that followed, during a forum at the Palace of Fine Arts on Feb. 22.
“Even though the school board neglected the point that I made 50 years ago, that unless they permitted and created a plaque to explain those murals, that we would be right back in this space again, the murals sufficed but time is irrelevant when the information is not available and young people need information, and they need guidance,” Crumpler said. “The school board’s decision to erase history is not a good one. And thank goodness we have people who have arisen to this task to fight ignorance and erasure.”
But people at the forum were not all of the same opinion, as Kanyon Sayers-Roods, of the Mutsun Ohlone tribe, made clear.
“This particular conversation is very one-sided,” Sayers-Roods said. “There is an agenda. There is bias. And in a lot of your arguments there have been dismissals, multiple…. This is one-sided, and it’s very aggressive in using civility politics to silence voices. It is not a safe space here.
“Fifty years,” she said. “Why haven’t the students been educated about it in the way that we keep hypothesizing and projecting? Do it.”
San Francisco public defender and former SF Supervisor Matt Gonzalez pointed out that as times change, so do standards.
“There has been an evolution of standards and how we think about things,” Gonzalez said. “I do not believe that art is so pure that you can never take it down. I think that monuments to public figures should be revisited and make sure they’re meaningful from our contemporary time and place.”
He said that he was shocked, however, when he heard that some students were reportedly traumatized by the murals.
“But I wanted to be open to that. And I want to be sensitive that that could in fact be happening. But I also want to then try to step back from it and say ‘what would be the rule that we adopt if we simply go with that one response to the murals.’ I mean, are we going to impose a rule that says whenever a group of us are traumatized by something that we’re going to tear that down?”
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