SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — After weeks of pushback over the decision to remove historic murals, San Francisco school officials voted Tuesday to cover, rather than destroy, a series of 1930s frescoes depicting George Washington, black slaves and dead Native Americans.
The school board’s June 25 decision to paint over the 13 murals gained national attention and sparked widespread criticism. Some denounced the move as censorship of art and history. The frescoes were created by Russian-American artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936 as part of a Works Progress Administration program.
The Depression-era art inside George Washington High School in the city’s Richmond district depicts the life of George Washington, including images of slaves at his Mount Vernon home and a white soldier stepping over a dead Native American.
Those in favor of removing the murals say they force black and Native American students to see dehumanizing and traumatizing portrayals of their people on a daily basis. Others say the images were intended as a critique of American history.
Dozens of people spoke on both sides of the issue at a meeting Tuesday night.
The Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, objected to painting over the artwork, saying it would make the school district “complicit in a move to redact history.” He said students should learn the truth about ugly incidents in America’s past, or they may be doomed to repeat it.
Thomas Reddy, an English and social studies teacher at the high school, argued that students can learn about American history, including slavery and genocide, without having to look at dehumanizing and traumatic images every day in school.
San Francisco School Board President Stevon Cook’s proposal to “cover over the mural with panels or another similar treatment” and digitize the artwork for historians failed to appease everyone.
Joe Golinger, of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, said that while he is pleased the school board took painting over the murals off the table, permanently covering them is akin to “destroying them in another way.”
Some who want the mural removed also called the plan to cover the artwork with panels unacceptable because the coverings could be taken down in the future.
Amy Anderson, a Native American parent who for years has been pushing for the murals to be removed, said she will not rest until the paintings are permanently erased.
“We’re going to stay in it until we see that social justice is truly a core value and it is acted upon in this school district and that the mural someday will be painted down,” Anderson said after the meeting Tuesday night.
The school estimated it would cost $600,000 to paint over the mural. Cook said Tuesday that it would probably cost at least $5 million to remove walls containing the frescoes to be moved to another location.
School administrators were instructed to explore options for covering up or removing the murals without destroying them and to report back to the school board on those options.