San Francisco plans to paint over a historic mural at a public school. The artwork depicts the life of President George Washington. When the painting was new, people saw it as educational. Now they criticize it as degrading for how it portrays black and Native American people.
George Washington High School has about 2,000 students. Nearly all are people of color, and many come from low-income families. As early as the 1960s, some students called the mural offensive and racist. Recently, new protests have emerged.
Leading San Francisco muralist Victor Arnautoff painted the “Life of Washington” in 1936. The 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural at George Washington High School depicts the first U.S. president as a soldier, surveyor, and statesman. It contains images of white pioneers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
The school board’s decision comes at a time when the importance of Washington and other historical figures who owned slaves are being re-examined. Some cities have changed the names of streets and buildings named after slaveowners.
Mark Sanchez, vice president of the school board and a third-grade teacher, says students who walk past the mural don’t have a choice about seeing the images. “Painting it over represents not only a symbolic fresh start, but a real fresh start,” he says.
Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, disagrees. He says when he was a student and saw the mural he was “awed by the subtle ways Arnautoff was able to critique American history.” He believes the mural is a treasure, priceless art, and painting it over is like pretending the history never happened.
“I’m not into censorship,” Yap says. “I would want to deal with history so we can prevent this from ever happening again.”
The decision to paint over the mural prompts some to worry: Could other artwork face a similar end?
Censorship (banning art, books, news, etc., that someone believes is illegal, immoral, or dangerous) is tricky. Deciding to censor one person opens the door for censoring everyone. On the other hand, there are images and words that should be off limits. What do you think the San Francisco school board should do about the mural?
(Students walk past a historic mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)