New San Francisco School Board Reverses Decision to Remove George Washington Mural

People fill the main entryway of George Washington High School to view the controversial 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural, the "Life of Washington," during an open house for the public on Aug. 1, 2019, in San Francisco. The San Francisco school board voted Wednesday, June 22, 2022, to rescind a previous …
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

A mural featuring founding father and first U.S. President George Washington that includes images of slaves will not be removed after a reconfigured San Francisco school board reversed the earlier board’s decision.

Three board members were rejected in February and the board voted 4-3 on Wednesday to nullify the decision over the mural on display at Washington High School.

The move comes after almost three years of legal battles and debate over the 1,600-foot mural, which is a 1936 fresco, painted on wet plaster. The Life of Washington is the work of Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, commissioned as part of the Works Progress Administration public art program. 

The mural features panels depicting scenes from Washington’s life and, according to an art website, the artist was providing social commentary through his work about the evils of slavery. But social justice warriors on the San Francisco school board said it promoted slavery.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the development:

The original controversy over covering the mural, which grabbed international headlines, pitted the issue of racial equity against artistic freedom and historic preservation at a time of reflection over race and reparations for historic atrocities and public displays associated with America’s ugly past.

The board majority initially voted to paint over the mural in 2019 before reversing course and deciding to cover it up with curtains or panels. That decision was challenged in court and the district lost. The district then appealed, but later decided to settle the case and abide by the judge’s ruling.

A judge determined the district violated laws requiring an environmental impact report prior to voting on a course of action, requiring the district to “void” the decisions. The district planned to do an environmental review, but not until after the board’s decision. The judge went so far as to chide district officials, citing the amount of evidence showing they violated the law, including information in their own filings.

“When considering the Board and SFUSD’s [San Francisco Unified School District] meritless position, the court wonders if they are looking at the record they filed in this proceeding,” the judge wrote in her decision.

The decision means the mural will remain in public view but the Chronicle noted the mural could be challenged in the future.

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