Controversial murals at the Richmond District’s George Washington High School will most likely be covered up — but that didn’t stop a group of mostly white seniors from glossing over the pain of Indigenous and Black community members at a Tuesday evening San Francisco Board of Education meeting.
The meeting had the sole purpose of hearing from people for or against keeping “Life of George Washington,” a 13-panel fresco from 1936 that depicts enslaved Black folks, and an apparently deceased, bloody Native American — all victims of white colonizers. This mural is located in the lobby of the public high school, a spot where students have allegedly been known to reference by saying “Let’s meet under the dead Indian.”
Now, it faces one of three modern, politically-correct fates: being painted over, having panels placed over it, or being covered by a curtain. Painting over it would somehow cost an estimated $600,000 and could take up to three years, and would most likely include some legal hurdles. The other two options would be to cover it up with a curtain, costing $375,000, or block it with acoustic panels — each of which would come in at around $875,000. The last two options would take more than a year to design and install.
The above options stemmed from a working group’s input, which overwhelmingly did not recommend that the school district keep it up in its current form. But that didn’t stop an irate — and mostly white — crowd of censorship activists, history enthusiasts, and alumni from decades ago from coming out in droves Tuesday evening. In their eyes, the mural reflects the honest history of George Washington as a slave owner is there to educate — and students today don’t understand that.
“Destroying or covering it would be an act of censorship and a blow to freedom of expression that would set a precedent for further such actions,” said Joel Britton, who’s running against Mayor London Breed as the Socialist Workers Party candidate. “Censorship creates precedents that will always come down hardest on the working class, including African American, Latinos, Native American, and Asian American working people.”
Others spoke to the need for art education, and reminded them that history is written by the conquerors with no sense of irony.
“I see no problem with the mural,” said Donna Parker, who said she was half Native American. “Everything was white-washed when I was going through school. Native American lives matter. Black lives matter. Every life matters.”
Save for another Indigenous speaker in support of the mural, Parker was alone. The speakers that followed pushed back on the need to present the country’s ugly history in the form of an unexplained mural in a public high school, saying that it did much more harm than good. Some George Washington High students spoke to it feeling difficult to walk past, while one said she found no positive value after visiting it in person.
“This is a lived experience,” said Paloma Flores, who is Indigenous and is the coordinator for the district’s Indian Education program. “No one has the right to tell us native people or our youth who walk those halls how they should feel. You’re not in those shoes. You don’t feel what they feel unless you’re living it.”
Several others agreed, adding that murals like these are unnecessarily painful reminders and internalize stereotypes for students of every ethnicity.
“Everyone seems to be in a rush now to tell the story you’ve had many, many years to tell,” said Dee Dee Manzanares Ybarra, Ohlone tribal chair. “Now give us a chance to tell our story.”
Not one school board member advocated to keep the mural. Instead, Commissioners Gabriela Lopez, Alison Collins, Stevon Cook, and Mark Sanchez commented on how emotionally draining it was to hear —and have other rehash for them — the pain they know firsthand comes from violent, demeaning imagery like this. The board has been discussing the issue for more than a year, even attracting national coverage, and will vote on which option at its regular meeting next week.
“My question is who needs to remember it? I don’t need to be reminded. It’s in your face all the time,” said Collins, who said she had ancestors who were enslaved. “White supremacy culture is when folks are more concerned about the life of Washington murals than they are about Native American and Black lives.”
In the end, it appears the mural is a teaching moment. But the big question remains: at what cost?