A high school in Northern California — George Washington High School — is mulling over a push to remove two 83-year-old murals from its hallways. Critics advocating for their removal say they are offensive to Native Americans and African-Americans. They say the pair of panels “traumatizes students and community members.”
In the debate over the 13 murals that make up “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School, one side, which includes art historians and school alumni, sees an immersive history lesson; the other, which includes many African-Americans and Native Americans, sees a hostile environment.
Sometime this spring, the school board will make a decision about the future of the massive frescoes that extend from the school’s entryway through its lobby, confronting students as they climb the stairs to their classrooms.
The works were created in the mid-1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a social realist, for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.
Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.
But to Amy Anderson, a member of the Ahkaamaymowin band of Métis who has been a catalyst in the campaign to remove the murals, they represent “American history from the colonizers’ perspective.”
Around the country in recent years, people have been questioning historical representations in public art. Confederate statues and monuments have been dismantled. And in September, San Francisco city workers removed a statue symbolizing the Catholic Church’s mission-era subjugation of Native Americans. But the Washington High frescoes present a different issue. What they symbolize is open to interpretation. Some see a subversive message about Washington’s failings; others see his glorification.
When the frescoes were painted, critics praised Arnautoff’s work. But by the late 1960s, his art aroused anger. The school district responded by adding contemporary murals by the African-American artist Dewey Crumpler in 1974. The additional artwork did not satisfy Ms. Anderson and others opposed to the murals.
Stevon Cook, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, wants the paintings covered or removed. “The history we tell is very one-sided,” he said. An African-American, he supports teaching this history in classrooms, but opposes “violent images that are offensive to certain communities,” he said.
But scholars see something else in the murals: history. Robert W. Cherny, an emeritus professor of history at San Francisco State University and the author of “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,” points to the artist’s critique of Washington. “Arnautoff was a major artist, an artist on the left who was being very critical of Washington for owning slaves, and he was critical of the genocide of Native Americans.”
Gray Brechin, project scholar of the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It’s not a matter of erasing art, it’s erasing history itself.” He also spoke about the importance of preserving memories of atrocities. “The Jews never want what happened to them to be forgotten,” he said. “That’s why they have so many memorials.”
Some art historians and Washington High School teachers who spoke to the committee in favor of the frescoes said they felt uncomfortable expressing their views. “There was a feeling of animosity in the air,” John M. Strain, an English teacher and graduate of Washington High, said. His students, he said, “feel bad about offending people but they almost universally don’t think the answer is to erase it.”
Marianne Philipp, the school librarian, also spoke because, she said, “It’s my job to champion intellectual freedom. It’s disturbing to me that this is under discussion.”
After hearing from both sides, the committee issued a statement that said the artwork “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and does not represent the San Francisco school’s “values of social justice.”
In February, eight committee members voted to recommend that the school district remove Arnautoff’s frescoes, two were undecided and one voted to save them. To remove them would be to destroy them because moving them would be too costly. The committee said the frescoes could be archived digitally.
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, cast the sole vote to save the frescoes. “There are not many people whose politics are left of me,” Mr. Yap, a filmmaker, said. “If they succeed, this would be book burning in Germany in the 1930s.”
Mark Berger, a Washington High alumnus and a sound engineer, said digitizing the frescoes, is not an acceptable solution. “The thing about murals is that they’re out there for anyone to see who walks by. It catches your attention. It may cause you to think about things you wouldn’t think about. It’s the artist reaching out to you rather than you seeking out the message,” he said.
The school board will take up the issue in the coming months. If it votes to destroy the murals, Mr. Yap said the alumni association would file a lawsuit to stop it.