Mural Controversy Refuses to Die a Dignified Death

Supporters of the mural in a public school depicting slaves and dead Natives forced the school board to keep the mural intact after all.

Community members get a look at controversial Works Progress Administration murals that date to the Great Depression at George Washington High School on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

In June, Black and indigenous leaders cheered after the school board unanimously voted to paint over a 1930s mural at George Washington High School. But on Tuesday evening, the mood was somber — thought not defeated — as the board was forced to undo their decision to paint over the piece after supporters of the mural relentlessly hounded commissioners during an evening community meeting.

The mural in question is “Life of George Washington,” a 13-panel fresco at George Washington High School in the Richmond District that depicts slaves shucking corn and a deceased, bloody Native American lying face-down. Instead of repainting it, the district will now pursue options of covering it with panels or similar materials the decisions around which are sure to be tied up in environmental review for months, if not, years to come.

“I understand that this mural has received so much attention that the superintendent and school board have not been able to get work done on major items,” said Amy Anderson, a Native American parent of a student at the high school and who has organized against the mural. “We’re going to stay in it until social justice is truly a core issue and it is acted upon in our school district and that one day, the mural will be painted down.” 

The school board unanimously voted in June to paint over the mural, agreeing with the speakers from the school district and community members about it being an unnecessarily painful reminder of the past without an adequate history lesson.

But mural supporters refused to give up as nationwide coverage only increased. And it’s an unusual cast of characters — support to keep the mural has galvanized censorship activists, historians, old-school leftists, and even Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover, who attended the high school in his youth.

They point out the artist’s original intentions to fully reckon with the country’s racist history of killing and enslaving Black and Native people. When Victor Arnautoff painted the New Deal-era on behalf of the government in 1936, his truthful, if blunt, depiction of George Washington as a slave owner was radical.

“It pains me what we will become complicit in a move to make a redaction to history ,” said Rev. Amos Brown, leader of the local NAACP chapter, in a raucous speech that took up a third of his side’s time on Thursday. “I hope this board leave that mural alone, it tells the whole truth of George Washington being complicit in the slave trade.”

In between the two meetings in June and on Tuesday filled with constant and belligerent disruptions, a coalition of mural supporters threatened a ballot measure to take the issue to voters, and even a lawsuit that could cost the city millions — far more than the $600,000 estimate to paint it over. Installing panels is estimated to cost $875,000 and covering it with a curtain was estimated to cost $375,000.

The mural offers no explanation or explicit learning lesson and controversy goes back decades, as indicated by Chronicle coverage in 1968 of Black students battling art preservationists for a mural red-do. Plus, opponents question why the mural with violent imagery and demeaning depictions of people of color are in a public high school.

“This mural is hurtful and harmful,” said Sharez Brown, a junior at the high school, at the meeting. “It tells the history from the perspective of white people.”

It all became impossible to ignore and let the original decision stand. Board President Stevon Cook introduced the resolution to come to compromise and put the issue to rest. The board was split 4-3, with Commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Mark Sanchez opposed.

Though they all agreed it should be out of public view, Cook and Commissioner Rachel Norton preferred it be covered — and most of them touched on how they felt they had little choice in changing their decision in order to move onto critical issues facing the district. Commissioner Jenny Lam was seen wiping away tears while Collins, who offered an amendment to study removing the wall altogether that was defeated along the same voting lines, issued a defying statement to outside actors taking up the issue.

“I don’t get why people are standing up for this. There are black and brown boys dying. People are making noise about this and I’m confused — is this a smoke screen?” asked Comissioner Faauuga Moliga. “I’m here today because I had to choose my battles. As much as it breaks my heart to go the route that we need to go, it’s my journey and my feelings and I need to go with it.”

Cook’s resolution was meant to be a compromise but applause was absent from all sides once the vote was made. 

“There are people that don’t like the resolution I’ve put forward,” Cook said. “There’s pretty much agreement that the murals depict a racist history. Let’s get this board back to work.”

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