School agrees to cover up mural depicting slaves and dead Native Americans


After decades of debate and outcry, the San Francisco Unified School District unanimously voted to cover up this 1936-era fresco, “Life of Washington.”

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SAN FRANCISCO — When Amy Anderson and her son walked into George Washington High School years ago they felt a gut-wrenching reaction, coming face to face with a larger than life mural depicting images of slavery and dead Native Americans.

After decades of debate and outcry, the San Francisco Unified School District unanimously voted Tuesday evening to cover up this 1936-era fresco, “Life of Washington.”

The mural was commissioned by the U.S. Government in 1936 under a New Deal art program and painted by well-known muralist Victor Arnautoff.

During the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, members of school’s Black Student Union called for the removal of the mural. Instead of removing the mural then, the District hired black artist Dewey Crumpler to paint a “response mural” showing Native Americans and African Americans in a more positive light. Three years ago, the call for removal was reignited when Anderson’s son Kai decided to enroll at Washington High.

Anderson and her son are Native American. Kai told his mom he would walk into school with his head down every day so he would not have to see the murals on the wall. “They (Native students) actually see themselves and their ancestors up there on those walls and they feel pain,” said Anderson.

In late fall of 2018, Anderson and fellow indigenous activist Mariposa Villaluna drafted a resolution to send to Mark Sanchez, a school board commissioner. The move resulted in the creation of the district’s Reflection and Action Committee to decide what to do about the “Life of Washington” mural. In February, the committee recommended to the school board that the mural should be covered in white paint before the start of the 2019 school year.

The committee argued that the mural did not live up to the district’s student-centered focus and did not represent its values of social justice, diversity and unity. It added that the mural glorified slavery, genocide and oppression.

At Tuesday evening’s school board meeting, those in favor of keeping the mural argued the artist intended to provoke thoughtful discussions about oppression and that the mural could be used as a teaching tool for future generations. Villaluna said the school can find ways to teach these issues without students having to pass by the mural each morning. “The students thought this would be good as a lesson but not something we walk by every day,” Villaluna said.

According to the Tuesday night resolution, the board will now work to remove the mural from public view, using solid panels or equivalent material to cover the walls.

Anderson and Villaluna would prefer the mural be painted over in white paint, but if that takes too long the resolution allows for the district to cover the mural in paneling in the meantime. For Villaluna, this is about much more than simply covering up the painting. “It’s also about reclaiming our time, reclaiming our space. It’s about black and indigenous people … it’s a form of reparations,” Villaluna said.

Although Anderson and Villaluna see Tuesday’s vote as a win, they won’t consider it a victory until the white paint is up.

Anderson said for decades the voices of the Native and African American communities were ignored. For her, this movement has been always grounded in that knowledge — that she is speaking up for her ancestors who were not able to speak up for themselves.

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