While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.
Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.
With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.
Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,
Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”
Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.
As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.
Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”
Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”
Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”
On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”
However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.