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Alumni Support Historic Murals of George Washington that ‘Traumatize Students’ at California High School

The Associated Press
Bebeto Matthews/AP
TOM CICCOTTA

A mural of George Washington may be destroyed in response to a protest effort by students who claim that the artwork “traumatizes them.” Now an alumni group is fighting back in support of the murals, which they call “unusually progressive for their time.”

Students at George Washington High School in Northern California are protesting a 1936 mural that depicts the founding of the country. Two of the mural’s thirteen panels have caused a backlash amongst students due to their depictions of African-Americans and Indigenous Americans.

One of the murals depicts George Washington alongside slaves engaged in various tasks including picking cotton and hauling bales of hay. The second controversial mural depicts a slain Native American opposite a group of founding fathers including George Washington and Ben Franklin.

A group of students and teachers published a statement calling for the removal of all thirteen panels of the mural. In the statement, the group argues that the mural glorifies “white supremacy.”

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.

An alumni group has started a petition in response that asks the school board to reject calls to remove the murals. The petition argues that the murals were “unusually progressive” for the time in which they were painted and that they can serve as a “catalyst for discussing the sins of America’s founding.”

I ask the San Francisco Board of Education Superintendent and Commissioners to reject the proposal to paint out or dismantle the Victor Arnautoff “Life of Washington” murals in George Washington High School, a priceless example of WPA art painted by a left-wing artist and unusually progressive for their time. The murals include forthright depictions of the injustices experienced by Native Americans and African-Americans during Washington’s lifetime. With implementation of one or more of the solutions proposed by the Alumni Association to sensitively address the concerns raised, the murals can be a catalyst for discussing the sins committed as our country was founded.

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