A Mural That Doesn't Age Well: The Debate Over the George Washington Murals in S.F.

14 min

Can an artist’s original intentions withstand the test of time and modern sentiment?

A mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco — that some have described as degrading; others have called it historic — will be obscured from public view. The question is how?

The muralist Victor Arnautoff intended to tell a genuine story of George Washington's life and criticize America's racist history by showing the country's founding  father with enslaved black people and slain Native Americans. It was painted during the 1930's New Deal era with federal Works Progress Administration funding. The fresco spreads across a large wall inside George Washington High School located in the city's Richmond District.

The mural has been contentious since the 1960’s when people argued its racist depictions of Black and Native people were dehumanizing and demeaning. In the 1970s, another artist Dewey Crumpler was commissioned to paint additional murals, so-called response murals inside the school.

In the last year, a group of historians, artists and high school alumni applied to have the city designate the high school a historic landmark, which would have made removing the George Washington mural hard to do.

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The San Francisco school board has held many meetings about what to do with the murals. People of color in the community have told San Francisco school board members that the George Washington mural should be removed. While some artists, historians and alumni argue that would be an act of censorship.

After much debate, the San Francisco school board members will vote Tuesday on how to go about covering the mural.

For more on this story, click the "listen" button above to hear an interview with KQED Arts reporter Sam Lefebvre who has written about the murals.

Subscribe to The Bay to hear more local, Bay Area stories like this one. New episodes are released Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 a.m.  Find The Bay on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, NPR One, or via Alexa

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