Controversial Washington High mural to stay after school board vote

Controversial Washington High mural to stay after school board voteImage: @JPBowles via Twitter
Joe Kukura
Published on June 10, 2022

Painter Victor Arnautoff’s 1936 mural “Life of Washington” has been on display at SF’s Washington High School for decades, and it seems to have been mired in controversy much of that time. Its contentious element, seen below, shows a group of homesteaders standing over the dead body of a Native American.  


Blowback against that section of the mural goes back to 1986, when, as the Examiner reports, “Black, Asian and Chicano students said the mural depicted Native Americans and Black people in a ‘subservient’ and ‘demeaning’ way.” Fast forward to 2016, when the San  Francisco Unified School District Parent Advisory Council received the campaign to remove it.

That effort was seemingly completed in 2019, when then-superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in a staff memo, “This mural has no place in our schools. It is racist and harmful and part of the colonial project of the state and country, which wasn’t over in the 1930s and isn’t over yet. This is one of SFUSD’s ‘Robert E Lee’ statues.”

The Washington High Alumni Association immediately started a campaign to preserve the mural. Unmoved, the school board voted to paint over the mural in August 2019. That brought a lawsuit for the Alumni Association, which they won last July.  


The school board had considered appealing, but they won’t. The Examiner reports that the school board decided not to appeal the decision at a closed-session, late May meeting.

But this whole saga may still not be over yet. According to the Examiner, an SFUSD spokesperson communicated that “the settlement does not preclude the school district from taking steps that impact the mural in the future.”