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 in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo by Eric Risberg/AP, via EdSource)

In at least a temporary resolution to a heated debate in San Francisco that has attracted national attention, the San Francisco Unified school board has reversed an earlier unanimous vote to paint over controversial Depression-era murals at one of its high schools.

Instead, at another contentious and deeply emotional meeting on Aug. 13, the board voted to cover or conceal the 1,600-square-foot “Life of Washington” mural. Earlier estimates for covering the murals with panels put the cost at $875,000, but no final decision has been made on how exactly the murals will be hidden from public sight.

To view a webcast of the meeting, go here

The mural, painted by the noted Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff on the walls of George Washington High School, includes images of Washington’s slaves picking cotton and the life-size corpse of a Native American next to the feet of white frontiersmen carrying guns.

Arnautoff included those images as an act of protest to draw attention to the dark roots of the nation’s founding. But critics said the images, regardless of their origins, were upsetting to some students and had no place in a school in San Francisco in the 21st century.

At the meeting, the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, and one of the most prominent African American leaders in the city, spoke in favor of keeping the murals in full view of students. “It pains me that we have become complicit in a move to do a redaction of history,” he told the board.

The decision to cover up the murals, however, is not necessarily the last word on their fate. Board President Stevon Cook said the district will not take up the matter again while he is president. But his term is up in December, so a future board could revisit the issue.

Cook’s revised resolution approved by the board calls for using solid panels” or other “materials, means or methods” to cover the murals.

Cook, who is African American, acknowledged that those opposed to the murals would be unhappy with his revised resolution. “If you are upset with someone, be upset with me,” he said.

He recounted his and his family’s long history in the school district, beginning with his great-grandfather whose six children were educated in San Francisco schools. “The murals on the walls depict a racist history,” he said. “It is a history that we have to tell. It is important that it is a history that every student needs to know.”

At the same time, he suggested that there were many more urgent challenges for the district to deal with, than the mural, like high levels of student homelessness and chronic absenteeism.

Alison Collins was one of the three board members who voted against Cook’s resolution. The murals, she said, were a “remnant from a bygone era.” “They are outdated, like the outdated textbooks we taught with when they were created in the 1930’s,” she said. “We aren’t using murals to teach our complex history.”

To defenders of the mural from outside the district she said, “If you want your murals, I say ‘come and get them.’ We don’t want them. You don’t own our schools, you don’t get to decide what our kids get to see and learn. That is our business.”

Another no vote came from board member Mark Sanchez who read from a letter he received from a former Washington High student. “I didn’t like the mural,” the student wrote. “I get angry when people say it is history or save it for our sake.  My family is still hurting from our story.”

“The mural does not belong in a school,” the student went on.  “We need to allow our ancestors to rest and our students to move on.  We must allow them to be free of negative images and begin again.”

Jon Golinger, head of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, which opposes covering the murals, said the decision by the board gives his organization time to figure out what to do next.

“This is not a compromise,” Golinger told the San Francisco Chronicle. His organization has not ruled out putting a measure before voters calling on the district to keep the murals open to public view.

For the foreseeable future, the murals will remain on display, at least to the school community where the murals were painted.  That’s because it will take considerable time — definitely months and perhaps years — to figure out the best way to cover the murals, to ensure they meet environmental review regulations, and then to install the coverings.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Louis Freedberg