San Francisco high school’s Depression-era murals spark censorship debate

On June 25, 2019, the school board of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) voted to paint over Depression-era murals located at George Washington High School. The images depicted slavery and the violence against Native Americans. After backlash surfaced over the decision, the board elected, in August 2019, to cover the murals with removable panels instead. 

Key Players

In the mid-1930s, Russian immigrant Victor Arnautoff painted “The Life of Washington,” a 13-panel series of murals, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an aggressive employment and infrastructure project initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. These paintings cannot be removed without being destroyed, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). Those who support keeping the murals intact claim that Arnautoff intended the brutal depictions to confront the past and to correct the “whitewashing” of history, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Further Details

The murals came under board scrutiny after students at George Washington High School reported that the artwork made them feel uncomfortable or offended. This response prompted an ad hoc committee to recommend, in April 2019, that the murals be “archived then removed,” The Guardian reports. Mural supporters — including actor and activist Danny Glover, who attended the high school — complained to the school board, likening the decision to “book burning” and highlighting the educational intent behind the artwork, according to the Chronicle. Opponents argued that the offended students’ opinions should be respected and that the space freed up by destruction of the murals would present an opportunity for artwork that promotes racial justice and empowerment. 

When the board first voted to eliminate the murals, some Native American and racial justice advocacy groups considered the decision a victory. However, the backlash of the anti-censorship protest brought the issue to the national stage. 


SF school board reverses decision to destroy the artwork; plan to cover the murals still regarded as censorship by many 

After public pressure to reconsider, the school board decided to save the murals, but obscure them from public view. On Aug. 13, 2019, by a 4-3 vote, the board chose not to paint over the murals but instead to cover them with removable panels, according to the NCAC. 

Although this compromise satisfied some of the protesting parties, many continue to advocate against the decision. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), former mayor of San Francisco, in an October 2019 letter to SFUSD, made a case for neither covering nor destroying the murals, for such tampering would “deny our past and [fail] our students.” Jon Golinger, founder of the Coalition to Protect Public Art, sent a letter to San Francisco Board of Education President Stevon Cook in October saying that the group is drafting legal language to have an initiative related to the issue on the November 2020 ballot, according to Curbed San Francisco. The proposed resolution would “prevent public funds from being used to destroy, censor, or prohibit public access to public art at George Washington High School,” Golinger wrote.