Controversial George Washington Murals at San Francisco High School Will Be Concealed, Not Destroyed

A compromise that leaves everyone unhappy

George Washington High School
Actor and GW alum Danny Glover spoke at Tuesday's meeting
Twitter/@markmatthewsnbc
By Kayla Kibbe / August 15, 2019 10:40 am

After a long and heated argument over the fate of a series of controversial murals at George Washington High School, the San Francisco Board of Education has arrived at a compromise, which, like most compromises, leaves everyone unsatisfied.

On Tuesday, the board voted that the murals, which have been deemed offensive due to their graphic representation of African Americans and Native Americans, will be preserved but concealed, the New York Times reported. Unsurprisingly, Tuesday night’s 4-3 vote in favor of the compromise sparked renewed criticism from both the murals’ proponents and objectors.

While Tuesday’s decision overturned an earlier vote to paint over the murals, those who defended the controversial art argued that concealing the murals at all still raises issues of censorship. “While it is a step in the right direction to take permanent destruction off the table, we will continue to strongly oppose spending $815,000 to permanently wall off the murals so nobody has the choice to see them or learn from them,” said Jon Golinger, executive director of the Coalition to Protect Public Art — an organization formed specifically in response to the mural controversy.

Actor and Washington High alum Danny Glover has also spoken up in favor of the murals, comparing their destruction to book burning.

The murals’ opponents, meanwhile, have argued that they should be destroyed, not merely covered up. One school board member, Alison M. Collins, said that the murals “dictate to our children, mine included, what they should see and the stories they should be told. This is not history; it is a remnant from a bygone era.”

The murals, titled “The Life of George Washington,” feature panels depicting enslaved African Americans, a Native American carrying a scalp, and a dead Native American at Washington’s feet.

Complicating the issue is that these graphic images — unlike many of the controversial monuments, buildings and school mascots that have sparked debate in recent years for revering problematic historical figures were reportedly intended to be critical of Washington. Painted in the 1930s by Russian émigré and Communist Victor Arnautoff, the murals were originally meant to criticize the first president and the country’s mistreatment of minorities, according to the Times.

Whatever their original intent, however, many objectors maintain that the images are harmful and represent a problematic version of history. One Washington High student said that the murals “tell the history from the perspective of white people,” and are “hurtful and harmful to many students.”

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