Offensive or important? Debate flares anew over SF school mural depicting slavery

Apr 8, 2019 by

George Washington High School.jpg

For 84 years, San Francisco high school students have walked to class past the scenes of black slaves picking cotton and white settlers urged on by George Washington stepping over a dead American Indian.

To some, the historic mural on a wall at George Washington High is offensive and especially inappropriate for children — so much so that it should be destroyed. But others see an important piece laden with subversive commentary, reminding viewers of the first president’s role in slavery and the death of American Indians during westward expansion.

Over the years, calls to remove the controversial work, “Life of Washington” by Victor Arnautoff, have failed. Yet a renewed effort has momentum, winning the backing of many students, the Board of Education president and a community task force that has called on the district to cover the Depression-era art with white paint.

They will face a vocal art community aligned with the school’s alumni organization, whose members have pledged to defend the 1,600-square-foot fresco, saying efforts to destroy or remove it amount to censorship and a whitewashing of history in a city that ought to be much more sophisticated. They promise to sue if necessary.

“I think the images are really harmful,” said school board President Stevon Cook. “But I do understand the sensitivity about it being art. It’s a difficult position to be in.”

Difficult or not, the mural needs to go, he said — either moved, if financially and logistically possible, or painted over. He’s urging the superintendent to report back on costs and options by the end of the school year in May so the board can take a final vote.

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