J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 05, 2019

Climbing the Walls at George Washington High

America’s conservative media recently went into a tizzy about the San Francisco school board’s decision to spend more than half a million dollars to install a large painting by a Communist artist showing how George Washington kept slaves and encouraged the theft of Native American lands.

No, wait that’s wrong. Right-wing pundits are criticizing the school board’s decision to remove that painting. As are some media voices on the left.

Let’s start again. The school board’s action was driven by the students at George Washington High School, most of whom are young people of color who on their school walls saw their ancestors being oppressed. Those young activists also demanded that the school’s name be changed so as not to perpetuate the honor for Washington.

No, that’s wrong, too. About two-thirds of the school’s students are Asian-American. I’ve seen no evidence of how the full student body feels about this effort. No one has formally proposed to change the school’s name.

I’d better start at the beginning. In 1936 San Francisco built a big new high school with Works Progress Administration money. That federal agency also paid the Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff to paint thirteen mural panels in the main entrance hall and library. Twelve of those comprised a “Life of Washington.” In photos of the paintings, like the one above by Daniel Kim for the San Francisco Examiner, we can see how Arnautoff had to design around the vents in the walls.

Arnautoff didn’t recreate the usual Colonial Revival public hagiography of Washington. Though he had once fought for the royalist White Russian army, he had become a Communist. Arnautoff therefore chose to include images of Washington ordering around enslaved Africans and encouraging white Americans to migrate west, killing Native Americans in the process.

Arnautoff’s critical approach to the American Revolution produced some ironic details. For instance, his depiction of the Boston Massacre owes a lot to Alonzo Chappell’s painting of British soldiers backed into a defensive triangle by violent colonists—more royalist than rebel.

Decades passed. In 1955 Arnautoff caricatured Vice President Richard Nixon, and the House Un-American Activities Committee summoned him for questioning. Eight years later, he moved to the Soviet Union to live his final years.

Meanwhile, at George Washington High School, students were complaining about the limitations of Arnautoff’s work. Emphasizing Washington’s slaveholding meant portraying blacks only in servile roles. Black Panther activists protested by throwing ink on the paintings and gouging the plaster. As for the pictures of Natives, in 1968 a vice principal told the San Francisco Chronicle, “For years, the by-word has always been ‘I’ll meet you under the dead Indian.’”

That year the high school student body voted 61% to demand additional artwork reflecting “recognition of the great contributions of black people to the sciences and history.” In 1974 the young local artist Dewey Crumpler completed “Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian, Native/Latin American,” an explicit response to Arnautoff’s “Life of Washington” nearby.

More decades passed. In 2017 a local preservationist organization proposed seeking landmark status for the high school, in part because of the murals. The school board declined to take that course, also in part because of the murals. Because now more people were criticizing that artwork on the grounds that the pictures created a poor learning environment for African-American and Native American students.

According to the New York Times in April, out of slightly more than 2,000 students at George Washington High School this year, there were 89 African-Americans and 4 Native Americans. Of course, being a small fraction of the student body might well make seeing visual reminders of oppression feel even more oppressive. Not many public high schools feature paintings of dead bodies, whatever political meaning they’re intended to have.

In February, the San Francisco United School District’s Reflection and Action Committee recommended that this summer the department digitally archive the “Life of Washington” and then cover it with white paint. This committee declared that the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” Which of course is the opposite of what Arnautoff intended. But pre-WW2 American racism may have seeped into his depictions unwittingly, and the changing cultural context may have altered how the images come across.

(That committee also stated: “At Oak Park School in Illinois, the[y] covered a historic WPA mural with white paint because it lacked the racial diversity their school has.” In fact, that mural had been moved from another school, and was simply moved again. The George Washington High School murals, in contrast, are frescos permanently infused into the plaster of the walls.)

Various people have disagreed with the committee. Dewey Crumpler, the artist who created the “response” murals, is now a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute; he feels that removing the Arnautoff murals would render his own work in the school “irrelevant.” An English teacher at George Washington High School assigned 49 freshmen to write essays about the frescoes. Four favored removing them. Most felt as one student wrote: “The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders.”

This month the San Francisco Unified School District board voted to accept its committee’s recommendation and find a way to conceal the murals—permanently, according to the board’s vice chair. They budgeted $600,000 for the effort; even a seemingly simple solution like painting over the walls would require a costly environmental impact study and at least a year of planning.

That’s how we’ve reached this deeply ironic moment. A progressive school board is literally talking about whitewashing over George Washington’s faults while leaving his name enshrined on a school building. Media commentators who generally speak up for the historical value of Confederate statues are voicing the same arguments to save a Communist’s New Deal critique of early America.

I’d prefer to see an approach like the one Deerfield used to update its monument to the 1704 raid on the town—adding information rather than subtracting, showing how understandings change, providing a visible reminder of how we value all students today without obliterating how American culture hasn’t always done that.


Peter Ansoff said...

John, the timing of this (excellent) post was a bizarre coincidence for me. I'm doing research for a presentation on the Russian colonial experience in what-is-now Alaska. One of the topics is the famous love story about Russian nobleman Rezanov and the daughter of the Commandant of the Presidio in San Francisco. One of the iconic pictures associated with that story is a detail from a mural on the wall of the Presidio chapel. It turns out that Victor Arnautoff painted that mural also, and (now that I look at it) his depiction has a notable anti-imperialist cast.

J. L. Bell said...

That does seem like a topic that would bring out Arnautoff’s ideological barbs, even if he was once a White Russian himself.