A school board’s decision in 2019 to remove a mural of George Washington depicting enslaved black people and Native Americans sparked a national debate about how American historical figures should be represented in educational settings.
The mural, in a San Francisco high school, remains on display after the city’s school board voted 4 to 3 on Wednesday to withdraw a previous effort to remove it from view. The decision came months after a recall vote in February changed the makeup of the school board, which many parents accused of prioritizing cultural debates over the challenges of educating students during the pandemic.
The school board’s original goal to remove 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 failing to conduct an environmental assessment of their plan.
In the 1930s, a Russian immigrant named Victor Arnautoff began painting frescoes at George Washington High School for the Works Progress Administration, a bureau that was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal utility. The artist painted the entrance to the high school with a mural depicting the first president alongside Native Americans and enslaved African Americans. By the time it was completed in 1934, Arnautoff had become one of the most celebrated figures on San Francisco’s cultural scene, building on his experience as an assistant to legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
Nearly a century later, some parents wanted to protect 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 up the paintings and later to hide the paintings — critics argued that erasing Arnautoff’s colonial-era depiction 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. Officials must conduct environmental studies “before a decision is made,” the judge wrote in its 2021 ruling.
Wednesday’s vote 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 seemed to set off a protracted saga of infighting and excessive animosity over school furnishings in a city where there are more dogs than children.
Michele H. Bogart, an art historian who has written in support of the conservation of the Arnautoff murals, described the new mood 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 take advantage of the ongoing educational opportunities offered by seeing these captivating paintings firsthand, allowing them to see and think for themselves.”