A school board’s decision in 2019 to remove a mural of George Washington that includes depictions of enslaved Black people and Native Americans set off a national debate about how American historical figures should be represented in educational settings.
The mural, inside a San Francisco high school, will remain on display after the city’s school board voted 4 to 3 on Wednesday in favor of rescinding a previous effort to remove it from view. The decision came several months after a February recall vote changed the makeup of the school board, which many parents had accused of prioritizing cultural debates over the challenges of educating students during the pandemic.
The school board’s original goal of removing the 1,600-square-foot painting, titled “Life of Washington,” also faced an uphill battle in the courts. Last year, a state judge ruled in a lawsuit that officials had violated California law by neglecting to conduct an environmental review of their plan.
In the 1930s, a Russian immigrant named Victor Arnautoff began painting frescoes inside George Washington High School for the Works Progress Administration, an agency that was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era relief program the New Deal. The artist painted the high school’s entryway with a mural that depicted the first president alongside Indigenous people and enslaved African Americans. By the time it was completed in 1934, Arnautoff had become one of the most celebrated figures in San Francisco’s cultural scene, building upon his experience as an assistant to the legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
Almost a century later, some parents wanted to shield their students from images of death and slavery on their way to class. When the school board voted on their removal in 2019 — first to cover, and later to conceal the paintings — critics argued that erasing Arnautoff’s depiction of the Colonial era was the equivalent of book burning.
The George Washington High School Alumni Association sued that year to prevent the mural’s destruction, an effort that convinced a California judge, Anne-Christine Massullo, that city officials had acted too hastily in their plans. Public officials must conduct environmental review “before a decision is made,” the judge wrote in her 2021 ruling.
The vote on Wednesday by the San Francisco school board does not prohibit the panel from reversing its decision in the future, and officials did not comment on their votes. But the decision appeared to bookend a prolonged saga of infighting and outsize animosity about school décor in a city where dogs outnumber children.
Michele H. Bogart, an art historian who has written in support of preserving the Arnautoff murals, described the new vote as “welcome news.”
“These New Deal murals have aesthetic and historical importance in their own right,” she said in an interview. “George Washington students can only benefit from the continued educational opportunities provided by seeing these compelling paintings firsthand, thus permitting them to see and think for themselves.”