After outcry against destroying a high school’s historic George Washington mural — since it “traumatizes students” and “glorifies slavery” and “genocide,” a group ruled — the San Francisco school board voted to cover the mural instead, KGO-TV reported.

Tuesday’s decision — which passed 4-3 — reverses a board decision in June to paint over the mural at George Washington High School, the station said. Board commissioner Mark Sanchez in June defended the paint-over cost as “reparations,” KQED-TV reported.

Image source: KGO-TV video screenshot

What’s the background?

Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff created the mural series on the walls of the school before it opened in 1936, and at the time it was the “largest WPA-funded, single-artist mural suite on the Pacific Coast,” the Richmond District Blog noted.

But some of the mural’s images came under fire during the civil rights era over its depictions of slavery and Native Americans, the outlet said, after which additional murals were created that depicted people of color in a positive light.

The issue heated up again recently after a proposal to designate the high school as a historic landmark, so the board created a “Reflection and Action Group” to determine what to do about the mural series, the outlet said.

And the group decided the entire Life of Washington mural series should be removed — i.e., painted over as the panels are painted upon the school’s plaster walls, the Richmond District Blog said. The following is the group’s statement on the matter, according to the outlet:

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.

Pushback

But last month over 500 academics signed an open letter imploring the board to think twice about its decision, calling it a “gross violation of logic” as the cycle of 13 murals actually represents “a significant monument of anti-racism.”

Even actor Danny Glover — a graduate of the high school — raised his voice and said the mural shouldn’t be painted over or covered, noting both moves are akin to book burning and “absurd,” KGO said.

Image source: KGO-TV video screenshot

“The responsibility of art is to make us feel uncomfortable,” Glover argued, the station noted.

“Why board it up?” he asked, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Why can’t we tell the truth?”

Rev. Amos Brown of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and NAACP echoed Glover’s sentiments, telling KGO he doesn’t want the mural covered as it depicts history.

“If they’re that upset about images about names and sounds, why don’t they consider changing the name of the school?” Brown asked the station after the vote.

Rev. Amos BrownImage source: KGO-TV video screenshot

Others don’t want to see it anymore

“I can’t imagine him walking into that school, being told meet me at the dead Indian,” one Washington High mother cried during public comment at the school board meeting, KGO said. “It’s not right.”

Image source: KGO-TV video screenshot

“I remember feeling really hurt that the one person that looked like me was portrayed as dead, as a decoration in a school lobby,” Arianna Antone-Ramirez — a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe and board member of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco — told the station.

Image source: KGO-TV video screenshot

KGO said cost estimates to cover the mural have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The station added that the mural will be digitized so images can be accessed, but it no longer will be on public view.

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