Imagine you attended George Washington High School in San Francisco, where the walls are adorned with 13 murals, painted during the Great Depression, that depict the life of George Washington. Some of these murals show an ugly side of history: slaves, hunched over, toiling in fields, and a dead Native American lying near Washington’s feet.
Do you think these murals should remain in your school? Does their historic value — they were painted in the mid-1930s for the Works Progress Administration — mean that they should stay? Or does the reality that some members of the community find the paintings to be offensive, dehumanizing and inappropriate for a high school take precedence?
One of the most controversial murals depicts a dead Native American.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
Before reading on, look closely at some of the murals. What is your initial reaction to them? What do you notice? What do you wonder?
In “These High School Murals Depict an Ugly History. Should They Go?” Carol Pogash writes:
In one of the murals, George Washington points westward over the dead body of a Native American. Another depicts Washington’s slaves, hunched over, working in the fields of Mount Vernon. These images aren’t in a museum exhibition but on the walls of a public high school.
In this famously left-of-center city, liberals are battling liberals over these Depression-era frescoes that have offended some groups.
In the debate over the 13 murals that make up “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School, one side, which includes art historians and school alumni, sees an immersive history lesson; the other, which includes many African-Americans and Native Americans, sees a hostile environment.
Sometime this spring, the school board will make a decision about the future of the massive frescoes that extend from the school’s entryway through its lobby, confronting students as they climb the stairs to their classrooms.
The works were created in the mid-1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a social realist, for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.
Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.
But to Amy Anderson, a member of the Ahkaamaymowin band of Métis who has been a catalyst in the campaign to remove the murals, they represent “American history from the colonizers’ perspective.”
Around the country in recent years, people have been questioning historical representations in public art. Confederate statues and monuments have been dismantled. And in September, San Francisco city workers removed a statue symbolizing the Catholic Church’s mission-era subjugation of Native Americans. But the Washington High frescoes present a different issue. What they symbolize is open to interpretation. Some see a subversive message about Washington’s failings; others see his glorification.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— What do you recommend that the school do about the murals? Should they be removed? Explain your reasoning.
— The article mentions that Victor Arnautoff, the social realist painter who created the murals, intended for his work to be critical of Washington by including then-rarely-acknowledged details like Washington being a slave owner. Does this affect what you think about the murals? What about their being a product of the Works Progress Administration which employed artists during the Great Depression?
— The writer contends that the murals are different from the Confederate statues and monuments that have been dismantled in recent years because what the murals symbolize is open to interpretation. To what extent, if at all, do you agree? Does your answer affect what you think the school should do about the murals?
— How much does it matter that these murals are in a high school, where students from different backgrounds come to get an education? Would you feel differently about them if they were in a government office building, hospital or courthouse?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.