A school board’s decision in 2019 to remove a mural of George Washington that includes depictions of enslaved Black and Native Americans sparked a national debate about how American historical figures should be depicted in educational settings. .
The mural, inside a San Francisco high school, will remain on display after the city’s school board voted 4-3 on Wednesday to cancel an earlier effort to remove it from view. The decision came several months after a recall vote in February changed the composition of the school board, which many parents had accused of prioritizing cultural debates about the challenges of educating students during the pandemic.
The school board’s original goal to remove the 1,600-square-foot painting, titled “The Life of Washington,” also faced an uphill battle in court. Last year, a state judge ruled in a lawsuit that officials violated California law by failing to conduct an environmental review of their plan.
In the 1930s, a Russian immigrant named Victor Arnautoff began painting murals inside George Washington High School for the Works Progress Administration, an agency that was part of the Depression-era relief program of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal. The artist painted the entrance to the high school with a mural depicting the first president alongside enslaved Native Americans and African Americans. By the time it was completed in 1934, Arnautoff had become one of the most celebrated figures on San Francisco’s cultural scene, drawing on his experience as an assistant to legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
Nearly a century later, some parents wanted to protect their students from images of death and slavery on the way to class. When the school board voted to remove them in 2019 — first to cover up, then to conceal the paintings — critics argued that Arnautoff’s erasure of colonial-era depiction was tantamount to burning books.
The George Washington High School Alumni Association sued that year to stop the mural from being destroyed, an effort that convinced a California judge, Anne-Christine Massullo, that city officials had acted too hastily. in their plans. Public officials must conduct an environmental review “before a decision is made,” the judge wrote in her 2021 decision.
Wednesday’s vote by the San Francisco school board does not preclude the panel from reversing its decision in the future, and officials did not comment on their votes. But the decision appeared to end a protracted saga of infighting and outsized animosity over the school’s decor in a city where dogs outnumber children.
Michele H. Bogart, an art historian who has written in support of the preservation of the Arnautoff murals, called the new vote “good news.”
“These New Deal murals have aesthetic and historical significance in their own right,” she said in an interview. “Students of George Washington can only benefit from the continued educational opportunities afforded by seeing these fascinating paintings firsthand, allowing them to see and think for themselves.”