You might be surprised to hear that students at the Richmond’s Washington High School have a habit of saying, “Let’s meet at the dead Indian.” That’s because there really is such a thing at the school: A sprawling fresco in its hallways painted way back in 1935 and 1936 contains one section depicting white colonizers stepping over the body of a dead Native American.
Native Americans and activists have been calling for the mural’s removal for decades, most recently in December. In fact, Washington High was denied landmark status in 2018 specifically because of the mural’s offensive nature to Native Americans. But the George Washington High School Alumni Association has launched a campaign to save the mural, and they’re taking their fight to the school board.
“Censorship of public art is a recurring threat,” the alumni group says in a release. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The [Victor] Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical, and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”
The alumni propose adding “interpretive panels to clarify the murals’ intent and document how they have been experienced by Native American, African American, and other students of color,” but otherwise keeping the 83-year-old mural intact.
Some historical preservationists also argue against the removal of the mural, and note that this particular work by New Deal-era artist Victor Arnautoff may have cultural value that many may not realize. “The murals at George Washington High School are one of the largest ensembles of New Deal artworks in a single site and therefore are highly significant,” the nonprofit Living New Deal said in an April 1 letter to the school board. “Artworks sometimes depict scenes that expose our country’s turbulent past and evoke controversy. Arnautoff, who studied with the controversial master muralist Diego Rivera, did not seek to glorify this history, but rather to provoke thinking and open discussion, as appropriate at a public school.”
This controversy is not unlike the racist statue debate over the now-removed section of the ‘Early Days’ monument at Civic Center. While Washington High added a set of “response murals” in the early 1970s, there is still plenty to dislike for a modern viewer looking at the “Life of George Washington” mural.
Sup. Matt Haney, who called the mural “embarrassing” while he was on the School Board, has also suggested renaming Washington High in 2016 since George Washington was a slave owner. That campaign didn’t really go anywhere, but the San Francisco School Board will consider the fate of the George Washington mural at a meeting later this month.
NOTE: This post has been updated with information about the Living New Deal letter to the San Francisco School Board.