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Victor Arnautoff, The Life of George Washington, 1936, at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

School Alumni Association Sues San Francisco Education Board to Protect Murals of George Washington

The alumni association of San Francisco’s George Washington High School has filed a suit against the city’s Board of Education, calling for it to conduct an environmental review and rescind its vote to cover up a series of Great Depression–era murals at the school.

The move comes amid a contentious debate sparked by the murals by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born artist, communist, and Stanford University instructor who completed the work depicting George Washington as a slave owner—which includes images of a deceased Native American and the president’s slaves working on his Mount Vernon estate—in 1936. 

As early as the 1960s, students have criticized the works as offensive and racist, sparking protests in the 1970s by the Black Panther Party and the school’s Black Student Union. Most recently, the school’s Reflection and Action Working Group, an ad hoc committee made up of students, faculty, local artists, historians, and members of the Native American community, was formed to assess the works and determined in April that the sequence glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, and “perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias.” The committee recommended their removal, and in July the Board of Education unanimously voted in favor of their recommendation. It also earmarked up to $600,000 for the project.

But in August, the board backtracked with a four-to-three vote to place panels over the murals, titled The Life of Washington, instead. The latest vote came after much pushback against the original decision, with historians arguing that the decision was the result of misinterpreting the artist’s intention, and some artists deeming the move censorship. Four hundred cultural figures signed an open letter condemning the artwork’s destruction, and local leaders from the city's NAACP chapter protested the plan to paint over the murals.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that an alumni association is raising tens of thousands of dollars to save a mural that black and indigenous students have been saying makes them feel unwelcome in their school since at least the 1960s,” said school board commissioner Alison Collins. “It’s amazing to see all this political muscle being used to drown out student voice in one high school.”

Association president John Rothmann said: “We are dedicated to the proposition that the Arnautoff murals should be preserved as a magnificent work of public art for future generations and used, as the artist intended, as a way of teaching history.” 

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