Fight Over Divisive Mural Escalates as George Washington High School Alumni File Lawsuit

Recently, the school board voted to conceal Victor Arnautoff’s “The Life of George Washington,” which critics call a racist depiction of Native Americans and enslaved people.

Victor Arnautoff, “The Life of George Washington” (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

The conflict over George Washington High School’s polarizing mural art is bound for San Francisco’s superior court.

Members of George Washington High School’s school’s alumni association filed suit against the San Francisco school district on Friday — alleging that its decision to shroud a historic, controversial mural departs from local law. The 1930s mural, “The Life of George Washington,” is a stark, disquieting visual: in one panel of the 13-part mural, the president stands beside a slain Native American after a skirmish. In another, he is surrounded by enslaved people of African descent. Although the mural was initially meant as a critique of Washington and his disregard for the humanity of enslaved people and Native Americans, the work has come to represent a cartoonish, exaggerated view of minorities to many of its naysayers.

The Depression-era work — sprawling, colorful, and conspicuous — is just the latest to enter a national conversation about history, representation, and the responsibility of public-facing art.

Victor Arnautoff, “The Life of George Washington” (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

Critics have argued the mural, painted by Victor Arnautoff, is racist, culturally insensitive, and a devastating reminder of oppression. In July, a group of San Francisco educators, “Teachers 4 Justice,”  posted a statement on Medium, affirming their support for Indigenous and Black communities. “The mural depicts an image of a murdered Indigenous person, as well as several other Indigenous persons painted in stereotypical, inaccurate ways. The mural also depicts African Americans only as enslaved people, supporting the problematic narrative that Black history is a history of victimization,” the statement read.

The opposition has countered that the mural is an important artifact of our mistakes as a nation — and painful for all the right reasons. But does that mean students at George Washington High School should be forced to confront it daily? Many members of the alumni association certainly think so; and according to a report in the New York Times, many students agree. (While the vast majority of students polled elected to preserve the mural, certain students were quoted as saying they couldn’t bear to see it; others were prompted to lackadaisically refer to the disturbing images in conversation, using phrases like, “Let’s meet at the dead Indian.”)

Initially, the mural was set to be destroyed, but the Northern California NAACP intervened. Leaders from the chapter said the mural is an important educational tool, however distressing. NAACP leader Rev. Arnold Townsend told the San Francisco Chronicle that paining over the mural would be equivalent to “whitewashing history to make it reflect a history that never existed.”

But in August, after months of debate, George Washington’s school board voted 4-3 to conceal, not destroy, the mural in an effort to appease both sides of the conflict.

The fight, which began in April, continued to escalate after the board’s vote, culminating with last week’s action. The lawsuit alleges the board issued its ruling without an “environmental review” which is required by California law.

The San Francisco School Board has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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