By Nina Grotch
A mural at the entrance of a public high school in San Francisco is receiving national attention due to the controversial nature of its subject. This mural from the 1930s depicts the ugly side of American history, showing George Washington as a slaveowner and depicting Native Americans and African Americans in negative ways.
The debate about this mural raises many questions relevant to our students. The First Amendment, censorship, “trigger warnings,” and the role of art to provoke and evoke feelings are central to examinations of American history and culture.
THE LIFE OF WASHINGTON
The 13-panel mural is titled “The Life of Washington” and was painted as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Russian artist Victor Arnautoff intended the work to be critical of the United States’ first president and the country’s treatment of its Native American and African American populations. There are three panels at the heart of the debate: one depicting a Native American with a human scalp hanging from his waist, another showing a dead Native American laying at Washington’s feet, and a third depicting slaves at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation.
The mural has provoked controversy since its inception – though that was the intention of the artist. In June, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted to paint over the mural at an estimated cost of $600,000. Other suggestions included installing curtains to cover the offensive portions of the mural or building panels to obscure the disturbing images.
IS IT ART TO BE PROTECTED…
On one side of the debate were historians, artists, and free speech activists. They argued that art is intended to be provocative and to invite questioning and debate. They also felt that this particular mural was created to highlight the truth and the brutalities of American history that have so often been omitted from textbooks and curricula. Lastly, the idea of destroying any artwork struck many as a form of censorship. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) group also weighed in and voiced their support for keeping the murals.
“Calling the board’s vote ‘cotton candy politics,’ the group’s president, Rev. Amos Brown, defended the mural as a crucial reminder of the unjust treatment of African Americans in San Francisco and across the nation.”
…OR IS A RACIST RELIC TO BE DESTROYED?
According to the New York Times,
“Those who want the mural gone called it a racist display that promotes white supremacy and makes many students uncomfortable. Several speakers noted that students often say ‘Meet me at the dead Indian’ when making plans with friends.”
On the other side of the debate, individuals argue that the images of people of color as victims and tragic figures of history are disempowering, inaccurate, and potentially traumatizing to students. Stressing the importance of creating a safe and welcoming school community, many feel that students should not have to walk by these troubling images every day. Kai Anderson-Lawson, for example, a Native American student at George Washington High School said, “Kids don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning.”
Discussing the mural with students
To date, the school board has decided to cover, rather than permanently destroy, the murals. This ongoing controversy provides an opportunity to explore art, censorship, and difficult histories with your students.
Here are some questions to frame the conversation for your students. This interactive photo of the mural, as well as this fact sheet by the San Francisco Unified School District can be used to support the discussion:
What is the role of art? Does it matter if these murals were intentionally created to highlight an ugly chapter of American history? Who gets to decide what is offensive? What if these views change over time?
Intention does not equal impact. Someone can have the best of intentions and still offend, hurt, or damage another with their words or actions. Does this change your opinion? Why or why not?
What role should students have in deciding the outcomes of debates such as these?
The NAACP came out to support keeping the murals up and visible. Why do you think that was their position? What about students who are impacted by walking by these offensive images each day at school? How might this impact their learning and engagement with their school?
What is the role of education? History classes study tragedies, wars, and oppression. How might this make some students feel? Are their feelings important? How might educators address these strong feelings?
Similarly, English and Language Arts courses are filled with literature that contains language and imagery that many students might find offensive or emotionally fraught. Should these books be removed from the curricula? Is there a value in reading these texts if it may traumatize some students? How might educators address these strong feelings?
Are there other solutions here? What can San Francisco Unified School District do to meet the needs of both sides of the debate?
“The Case for Keeping San Francisco’s Disputed George Washington Murals” | Roberta Smith, New York Times
“Who’s Even Defending the George Washington High Murals At This Point?” | Ida Mojadad, SFWeekly
“S.F. School Board Approves Amendment to Cover ‘Life of Washington’ Mural” | San Francisco Unified School District
 Laura Waxmann, “Movement to preserve controversial mural gets support from NAACP,” The San Francisco Examiner, August 6, 2019, https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/movement-to-preserve-controversial-mural-gets-support-from-naacp/ (accessed August 20, 2019).
 Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html (accessed August 20, 2019).
 Sam LeFebvre, “'This Is Reparations:' S.F. School Board Votes to Paint Over Controversial High School Mural,” KQED, June 25, 2019, https://www.kqed.org/arts/13860237/this-is-reparations-s-f-school-board-votes-to-paint-over-controversial-high-school-mural (accessed August 21, 2019).