Join our Campaign to Save the George Washington High School Murals

Washington High - Life of Washington
Washington High – Life of Washington

We are mounting a campaign to save the historic WPA murals at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. Some parents and students at the school believe that two of Arnautoff’s 13 murals “glorify” racism. One controversial panel depicts slaves and the other shows Washington pointing westward over a murdered Indian. Art historians and the school’s alumni association interpret these as the artist’s condemnation of both slavery and the myth of so-called Manifest Destiny. The members of the SF School Board are currently considering the removal of the murals and are expected to make a decision in May. Please consider joining our letter-writing campaign and writing to the members SF School Board to express your concern about this loss of public art and erasure of the past—albeit a painful depiction of our nation’s history.

You can find the Board members’ names and email addresses here: http://www.sfusd.edu/en/about-sfusd/board-of-education/overview-and-members.html

The destruction of these murals would be a significant loss for the public. Commissioned by the Federal Art Project, the George Washington High School murals belong to all Americans. Art historians have argued that the artist’s intent was, in fact, critical of national mythology, rather than condoning racism. Thus, the murals illuminate America’s history and hold valuable lessons. We believe that informative signage installed on site would offer an opportunity to make visible, rather than accept the historical injustices of Colonial America. History  should not be erased.  The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC has displays devoted to a discussion of slavery. The Holocaust Museum is dedicated to educating about genocide so that people will “never forget,” what happened.  The Choctaw Cultural Center educates visitors about the “Trail of Tears.” The George Washington High School can deliver the same message.

12 comments on “Join our Campaign to Save the George Washington High School Murals

  1. Ellen Felice

    Erasing history should never be an option especially for those who consider themselves educators.
    Destroying art is right up there with book banning and burning. The school board had already made up it’s mind and ignored those who spoke in favor of the mural/ It goes along with the board president’s wish to change the name of the school. Shame on them.

  2. Bob philip

    Agree with post of Ellen felice nd do not want history erased from the school. Are we also changing the history books in the school??

  3. Rosalie

    “Our Founding Fathers articulated the best of our ideals in the Declaration of Independence and they were defenders-of freedom in helping to create a new nation: the United States of America. While not every founding father may have lived out “the dream they had sketched out,” their words were “far ahead of their time and certainly ahead of their actions.” These men of their time laid out a vision of a world in which all people are created equal,” , “It is this vision we celebrate and honor in our Founding Fathers, even as we wrestle with their human and indefensible failings.”

  4. sheila goldmacher

    speaking the truth is never to be erased in any form including these powerful murals. What could folks possibly fear from the truth? very sad.

  5. Bruce Jolly

    Leave history alone! It’s not broke don’t try to fix it.

    • suzanne mw

      History, as it has been told in the US, is broken. For so long only the victors’ retelling has been printed and taught. This mural actually shows some of the disturbing realities of men’s actions. Our forefathers were brave and innovative; they were also ruthless and prejudiced. I agree that interpretive signage that challenges the viewer to think, question, and react would serve to encourage dialog in this house of learning.

  6. Ted Bakowsky

    It is very important to resist these Soviet Union style attempts to erase our nation’s history. It is happening all over the country and portends grave danger for the nation’s future. This is but one stop along the road that leads to totalitarian tyranny. GWHS Class of Fall 1969.

  7. Kate Andersen Mawson

    I am a graduate of Washington High School-1956. I DO NOT want to see you destroy the murals in any way.

  8. Dee Kay

    The murals were meant as a criticism of racism. But it may still be difficult for some young black or Native American students to have to pass by the stark images day after day in school. And some other students may misunderstand the murals’ message (as some adults obviously have!)
    Therefore some kind of text is definitely needed to be placed beside the murals to acknowledge the pain of the victimized and underline the anti-racist message.

  9. Val Smith

    According to the Washington Post, Stevon Cook stated “If removing a painting will help us achieve that, then I’m all for that.” with “that” referring to empowering students to “feel represented and reflected in a positive way”. If that’s the attitude of the top school administrator, it’s a very sad situation.

  10. adam raskin

    Please do not move the murals from GWHS. Use them, and the history of the artists who created them, as a “teaching moment.”
    “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
    George Santayana, philosopher.

  11. John J. Kern

    Michael, my son of 17, just graduated from George Washington High School (GWHS)in June of 2019, and is appalled by the School Board’s decision. He and many of his generation are calling the decision political correctness gone amok, which is not only indiscriminately attacking all conservatives but is now devouring many on the left. I pointed out to him that Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant, was definitely a leftist and was trying to show uncomfortable truths about American history. Last year, I was at GWHS on a temporary assignment for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), teaching U.S. History, and I used the murals to embellish not just current U.S. history, but US History stretching back in time before the foundation of the republic. Many of the students, mostly Juniors, were unaware of Arnautoff’s murals, painted under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930’s, and the historic significance of the murals-not just in its depiction of American history but in how it was depicted. As my former U.S. history professor from San Francisco State University, Robert Cherny, who wrote a biography on Arnautoff, had argued before the School Board, unfortunately to no avail, the murals actually present a “counter-narrative” to then circa 1930’s “heroic” historical narrative of the United States, which ,in many cases, flew under the radar of administrators. In fact, the genius of Arnautoff’s work is that they depict an almost idyllic view of American history, subtly punctuated by violent scenarios, such as a murdered Native American being walked over by pioneers, who are purposely rendered in black and white. More importantly, the pioneers’ land theft is being sanctioned by Washington and the well dressed speculator elite in the panel preceding the murdered Native American. The surveying of stolen land and using African American slaves to develop the stolen land is also illustrated. The School Board members were right to be alarmed over the objections of some minorities over their supposed demeaning portrayal, but in retrospect both parties in this decision have turned a deaf ear to renowned scholars who are advising against the destruction of the murals. Indeed they have superficially interpreted Arnautoff’s murals and have abjectly failed to grasp the deeper meaning of the artwork, which shows the exploitation of different classes and ethnicities in the service of a wealthy, white patriarchy. The whole point of history, after all, is not to just look at the past objectively-warts and all-but also be aware of the many subjective interpretations of history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.