SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — More than 100 people walked through the halls of Washington High School Thursday to view the controversial murals that the San Francisco Unified School District board recently voted to cover up.
The district opened the doors of the high school for two hours to allow members of the public to see the art for themselves.
The display called “The Life of Washington” is a collection of frescoes depicting the life of George Washington. He wasn’t just the father of the country. As the mural shows, he was also a slave owner and a land speculator. One panel depicts a Native American man lying dead at the feet of white explorers.
For months, the mural has sparked controversy. Some students complained they found the mural offensive. In June, the school board voted unanimously to have it painted over.
“This mural is not appropriate,” said Francee Covington, an African American woman, one of the few people of color in the crowd examining the paintings Thursday.
“Look at the wonderful depiction of Washington in every facet of this. Look at the African-Americans who don’t seem mistreated. They seem just fine with being kidnapped from their homeland and brought to America to work for centuries for nothing,” Covington said.
“There’s a lot of life that I’ve been offended by, but I can’t take it down,” said Charles Jackson, who is also African-American originally from Detroit. “I wanted to come look at the murals because of the fear that they are going to paint them over, which I think would be a big mistake.”
“Look at their faces, there’s tremendous dignity and respect,” said Susan Stauter, former artistic director for the San Francisco Unified School District. “I am dumbfounded that a public school board would vote to destroy art.”
The mural was painted in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff, a devout leftist who at one point was investigated by the FBI for his ties to communism. His grandson says the artist included Native and African Americans to provoke a conversation about the real history of the United States.
“He was naturally rocking the boat a little bit,” said Peter Arnautoff. “So he would be abhorred to hear the reaction that they’re getting today.”
Today’s uproar is a repeat of the past.
In the mid 1960s, some African American students spoke out against the mural. The school board refused to destroy it. Instead, the district commissioned a 19-year-old African American artist named Dewey Crumpler to create an alternative mural display, one that depicts African American, Latino and Asian Americans struggling against oppression.
That mural display called “Multi-Ethnic Heritage” is in a different room and was unavailable to the public Thursday.
Crumpler, now Associate Professor for Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, said he worries the 2019 school board decision will minimize his own art.
“It makes the work I did irrelevant – that is, the work I did was a dialogue with the past,” said Crumpler.
Crumpler said feelings were very strong, even more animated five decades ago among students of color. He said the call to tear down the original Washington mural continued through the six years it took him to finish his own mural, but he insisted it remain. The original protesters accepted that the alternative mural provided balance to the images of the original artwork, Crumpler said.
He hopes the school board will reverse its decision to erase the murals.
“I feel their pain,” Crumpler said. “But I think their remedy is the wrong one. And the board should be able to understand that they are there for education. Not destruction.”
SFUSD officials said it may cost as much as $600,000 to paint over the mural, which includes legal costs.
Lope Yap, Vice President of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, said his group is considering a lawsuit to try to keep the mural.
“We’re entertaining every legal and historical possibility,” Yap said. “We haven’t come to a conclusion yet, but we will soon.”