Judge Won’t Allow Mural at San Francisco School to Be Covered

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A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (George Washington High School Alumni Association)

The San Francisco school board violated state law when it voted to cover up a 1930s mural that critics said is racist and degrading in its depiction of Black and Native American people, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo said the board failed to conduct an environmental impact review before it voted in 2019 to cover up the sprawling mural at George Washington High School that depicts the life of George Washington.

The 1936 mural was painted by Victor Arnautoff, one of the foremost muralists in the San Francisco area during the Depression. In addition to depicting Washington as a soldier, surveyor and statesman, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot (149-square-meter) mural contains images of white pioneers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

New Deal scholars have argued that Arnautoff, a Russian-born communist and social critic, critically depicts unsavory aspects of American history in his work. But as early as the 1960s, some students at George Washington High School have argued that the mural’s imagery is offensive and racist.

Supporters argued it could play a role in educating people about America’s racist past and covering it up would be censoring art and history.


The board first moved to paint over the entire mural but later decided to cover it with panels or curtains. The projected cost of the project has mushroomed to about $900,000.

In her ruling, Massullo said the board was required to order a California Environmental Quality Act review that included studying alternatives before making its decision.

“The hallmark of our system is that whether it concerns the President of the United States or a local school board, the rule of law — the process — is more important than the result,” Massullo said in her ruling.

She said “a result-oriented board was determined to take down all 13 panels” of the mural and ordered the board to set aside its votes.

“California as a matter of long-standing public policy places enormous value on its environmental and historical resources,” she wrote in her ruling.

District officials have told the press that they are reviewing the decision.