139 Scholars Implore SF School Board Not To Destroy Historic George Washington Mural

Above Photo: From Nonsite.org

The San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted to paint over a Depression-era mural cycle depicting George Washington as a slaveholder and perpetrator of genocide against Native Americans, 139 academics, artists, and activists signed an open letter this week decrying the board’s decision as a “display of contempt for history” and urging it to reverse course. The letter is reprinted below.

A Federal Art Project mural cycle of thirteen panels devised and painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 in a San Francisco high school portrays George Washington as a slave owner and as the author of Native-American genocide. It is an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression. Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism. The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.


Now, however, activists including a number of students are seeking the destruction—not the concealment or contextualization—of the mural. The reasons they give—in public comment, in interviews, in the board’s statements—are various, but they all depend on rejecting the objective analysis of historical exploitation and colonial violence the mural offers and replacing it with activists’ valorization of their experiences of discomfort with the imagery and the authorship of the murals. On this account, a Russian immigrant cannot denounce historical wrongs by depicting them critically. On this account, only members of the affected communities can speak to such issues and only representations of history that affirm values they approve are suitable for their communities. On this account, representing historical misdeeds is degrading to some members of today’s student body. In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals. To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.

Let’s set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals’ destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own. What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation. Let’s stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present.

The undersigned oppose the school board’s decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision. We urge the school board to reverse its decision and take all reasonable steps to preserve the mural and to teach it as a work of art and as a representation of our history. We oppose this display of contempt for history.

To hear public comment preceding the board’s vote, follow this link.  (Discussion of the mural begins about ten minutes into the recording.)

At the end of the week, we will send this letter and list of signatories to the board members of the SFUSD. To add your signature, e-mail your name and institutional affiliation (if desired) to SanFranciscoMuralOutrage@yahoo.com


David Abraham, School of Law, University of Miami

Thomas J. Adams, University of Sydney

Aijaz Ahmad, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine

Mike Alewitz, emeritus, Art Department/Mural Program, Central Connecticut State University

Bridget Alsdorf, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University

Ellen Altfest, White Cube, London

Robert Ambaras, New York

Charles Andrews, author

Andrew Appel, Four Nations Ensemble, Hudson, N.Y.

Barbara Armentrout, former curator, The Peace Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Frank Thomas Armstrong, Portland, Ore.

Jennifer Ashton, English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jerry August, Los Angeles Unified School District

Todd Ayoung, Pratt University

Dario Azzellini, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

Joan Baldwin, Special Collections, The Hotchkiss School

Joshua Barnett, New York

Leslie Bary, University of Louisiana

Paul L. Bash

Basile Baudez, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University

Rick Baum, Social Science Department, City College of San Francisco

Laura Bender, artist

Ophelia Benson, columnist, Free Inquiry

Mark Berger, University of California, Berkeley, and George Washington High School class of 1960

Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

Jennifer Bethke, Department of Art and Art History, Sonoma State University

Sam Binkley, Emerson College

Elizabeth Bishop, Université d’Oran 2 Mohamed Ben Ahmed

Jessica Blatt, Department of Political Science, Marymount Manhattan College

Ernest Everett Blevins, West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office and Living New Deal

Paul Von Blum, Departments of African American Studies and Communication, University of California, Los Angeles

Michele Bogart, Stony Brook University

William N. Bonds, emeritus, San Francisco State University

Cale Brooks, NYC Democratic Socialists of America Medicare for All campaign

Nicholas Brown, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

Joanna Bujes, SIG Docs, San Francisco

Deanne Burke, Berkwood Hedge School, Berkeley

Charles T. Butler, emeritus, Columbus Museum

Katharine Butler, artist, Sausalito, Calif., and New York

Stephen Buttes, Department of International Language and Culture Studies, Purdue University, Fort Wayne

John Cain, retired, San Jose Public Library

Elena M. Calvillo, Department of Art & Art History, University of Richmond

C. Jean Campbell, Art History Department, Emory University

Stephen Campbell, Department of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

Marina Cappelletto, artist

Matthew Carson, Los Medanos College

Kathleen M. Carter, former Virginia Beach, Va., Arts and Humanities Commissioner

Robert W. Carter, former trustee, Chrysler Museum of Art

Michael Cavadias, actor, writer, NYC-DSA Citywide Leadership Committee

Sarah Cate, Department of Political Science, Saint Louis University

Enrique Chagoya, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University

Jeffery Chan, emeritus, Asian American Studies and English Departments, San Francisco State University

Stuart A. Chase, executive director, Monterey Museum of Art

Bi-Ling Chen, University of Central Arkansas

Robert W. Cherny, emeritus, San Francisco State University

Merlin Chowkwanyun, Columbia University

Kevin Chua, Texas Tech University

Hollis Clayson, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

Bruce Cohen, emeritus, Worcester State University

Rob Colvin, New York Academy of Art

Nicholas Copeland, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

Todd Cronan, Art History Department, Emory University

Malcolm Daniel, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Keith Danish, Leonia, N.J.

Michael Davis, emeritus, University of California, Riverside

Rachael Z. DeLue, Department of Art & Archaeology and Program in American Studies, Princeton University

Carol Denney, artist, Berkeley, Calif.

Bindu Desai, M.D., Albany, Calif.

Martha Louise Deutscher, author

Eugenio Di Stefano, Foreign Languages & Literature, University of Nebraska, Omaha

Geert Dhondt, Department of Economics, John Jay College, CUNY

Jed Dodd, Vice President, BMWED-Teamsters

Francisco Dominguez, photographer, artist, host of Radio Informar-KDVS public affairs

Mariam F. Donerian, Somersville, Conn.

Madhu Dubey, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

Carol Duncan, emeritus, Ramapo College of New Jersey

Stephen Duncombe, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University, co-director, Center for Artistic Activism

Jessica Dunne, painter and printmaker, San Francisco

Steve Early, journalist, author, and member of NewsGuild-CWA

Merle Lynn Easton, AIA

Martha Edelheit, artist

Jacob Edwards, Tulane University

William Elliot

Annette Elowitch, founder, Barridoff Galleries, Portland, Maine

Rob Elowitch, founder, Barridoff Galleries, Portland, Maine

Robert Eshelman-Håkansson, Columbia Journalism School

Sarah Evans, School of Art and Design, Northern Illinois University

Tom Evers, Departments of Philosophy and English, Duquesne University

Nancy Faughnan, Yale University

David Featherstone

Liza Featherstone, The Nation and Jacobin, New York University and Columbia University

Terry Donsen Feder, Hartford Art School

Nina Felshin, writer, activist, curator, formerly Zilkha Gallery, Wesleyan University

Michael Fiday, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati

Norma Field, retired, University of Chicago

Carlos Figueroa, Ithaca College

Allan Fisher, City College of San Francisco

Richard Flacks, Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

Keith Fowler, emeritus, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, University of California, Irvine, and George Washington High School class of 1956.

Anne-Lise François, University of California, Berkeley

H. Bruce Franklin, emeritus, Departments of English and American Studies, Rutgers University—Newark

Isabelle Freda, Film Studies Program, Hofstra University

Joshua B. Freeman, Department of History, Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Joan Frenkel, Daly City, Calif.

Amy Freund, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University

Michael Fried, emeritus, Johns Hopkins University

Amber A’Lee Frost, writer and journalist

Sal Garcia, artist and curator, San Francisco

Judith K. Gardener, Chicago, Ill.

Joy Garnett

Tamara Gayer, artist

Galina Gerasimova, City College of San Francisco

Frances Geteles, City College of New York, CUNY

Terri Ginsberg, The American University in Cairo

Judy Gittelsohn, Art for Well Beings

Fred Glass, Labor and Community Studies Department, City College of San Francisco

Sarah Glaubman, Oakland, Calif.

Sarah Gleeson-White, Department of English, University of Sydney

Jeffrey Goldthorpe, English Department, City College of San Francisco

Hon. Ruth Y. Goldway, ret. chair and commissioner, U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, former mayor, Santa Monica, Calif.

Joseph Goldyne, artist

Eric A. Gordon, National Writers Union, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeiter Ring, Los Angeles Worker Center

Suzanne Gordon, author, journalist, member CWA-NewsGuild

Marie Gottschalk, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Robert Greene, Portland, Ore.

Scott Griffith

Anthony Gronowicz, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco

Steven Hahn, New York University

Beverly L. Hall

John Halle, composer and pianist

Richard Halpern, Department of English, New York University

Theodore Hamm, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joseph F. Hancock, editor, Labor Today/El Trabajo Diario on behalf of Labor United for Class Struggle

Lawrence Hanley, Department of English, San Francisco State University

Claire Haratani, Menlo Park, Calif.

Joan Haratani, Menlo Park, Calif.

Lea Haratani, Menlo Park, Calif.

Jonathan Harwitz, Low Income Investment Fund

David Harvey, Graduate Center, CUNY

Charles Hatfield, University of Texas at Dallas

Andrew Hemingway, emeritus, Department of the History of Art, University College London

Stephen Hitchcock, Prague, Czech Republic

Claudia Hommel, former archivist, Detroit Institute of Arts

Andrew Hsiao, Verso Books

Gary Huck, political cartoonist, Huck/Konopacki Cartoons

Arthur Hughes, artist

Forrest Hylton, Ciencia Política, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Sede Medellín

Alexander Ignon

Amy Ione, director, The Diatrope Institute

Joel Isaacson, emeritus, University of Michigan

William Issel, San Francisco State University

Anton Jäger, Cambridge University

Cedric G. Johnson, University of Illinois at Chicago

Richard A. Johnson, The Sports Museum, Boston, Mass.

Robert Flynn Johnson, emeritus, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Alastair Johnston, retired, University of California, Berkeley

Peyton Lee Jones, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg

Stephen Kaltenbach, emeritus, California State University, Sacramento

Ramsey Kanaan, publisher, PM Press

Cindi Katz, Graduate Center, CUNY

Tarak Kauff, Veterans for Peace, managing editor, Peace in Our Times

Christina Kiaer, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

Phil King, artist and editor

Virginia King, mother of George Washington High School graduate

Joel Kohen

Olga Kopenkina, curator, New York

Anna Kornbluh, University of Illinois at Chicago

Steven Kovacs, School of Cinema, San Francisco State University and George Washington High School alumnus

Joyce Kozloff, artist

Brandon Kreitler, CUNY

Barbara Krzewicki

Benjamin Kunkel, author

Pat Kunstenaar

Rachel Kushner, novelist and George Washington High School graduate

Gordon Lafer, University of Oregon

Roger N. Lancaster, George Mason University

Helen Langa, emerita, Art Department, American University

Martin C. Langeveld, former publisher, The Berkshire Eagle, and former board chair, Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Mass.

Nora Latin, writer and George Washington High School graduate

Denis Lavinski, artist, Los Angeles

Virginia Leavell, University of California, Santa Barbara

Anthony W. Lee, Mount Holyoke College

Marc James Léger, independent scholar

Robert Lehman, English Department, Boston College

Robert D. Leighninger Jr.

Jerry Lembcke, emeritus, Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Holy Cross College

Eric Lerner, civil rights and immigrant rights activist, member, Jobs and Equal Rights for All Campaign

Stephanie Levin, City College of San Francisco/University of San Francisco

Yasha Levine, author, investigative journalist, Washington High School alumnus

Howard Levy

Ruth Leys, emeritus, Johns Hopkins University

Siv B. Lie, School of Music, University of Maryland, College Park

Sasha Lilley, KPFA Radio

Dennis Linn, author

Sheila Linn, author

Adam Linson, University of Stirling

Linda Liu, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Lourdes Livingston, Academy of Art University and Achenbach Graphic Arts Council

Fred Lonidier, emeritus, University of California, San Diego

Leslie Lopez, LaborFest Hawai’i

Kilynn Lunsford, Philadelphia DSA, Unite Here local 274

Seth Kahn, Professor of English, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Nivedita Majumdar, John Jay College, CUNY

Kitty Margolis, jazz singer and educator, San Francisco

Tom Marioni, founder, Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco

Charles Marsteller, retired, University of California, San Francisco

Carl G. Martin, Norwich University

Nilus de Matran

Margie Maynard, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Leo Mazow, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, historian and author

Anna McKittrick, Emory University

David McNeil, emeritus, Department of History, San José State University

Christopher Mead, University of Utah

Elizabeth Mead, Department of Art and Art History, College of William & Mary

William J. Mello, Indiana University

Joan Mettler

Amy Meyer, national parks advocate and artist, San Francisco

Walter Benn Michaels, English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Judith A. Miller, Department of History, Emory University

Mark Crispin Miller, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

Doug Minkler, poster maker

Alex Miokovic, College of Art and Design, Rochester Institute of Technology

Daniel Moak, African American Studies, Ohio University

Laurie Norton Moffatt, Norman Rockwell Museum

Doug Morris, West Chester University, West Chester, Penn.

Colleen Mullins, artist, San Francisco

Dennis Mulqueeney, Berkeley, Calif.

Michael Munk, retired academic and historian

Malgorzata Myk, Institute of English Studies, University of ?ód?, Poland

Balaji Narasimhan, Los Altos, Calif.

Zoika Naskova

Deborah Nelson, University of Chicago

Raymond Richard Neutra, M.D., Ph.D.

Heidi C. Nickisher, College of Art & Design, Rochester Institute of Technology

August Nimtz, Departments of Political Science and African American & African Studies, University of Minnesota

Deborah Epstein Nord, Department of English, Princeton University

Anne Norton, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

James Oakes, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jennifer Olmsted, Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University

Megan E. O’Neil, Art History Department, Emory University

Patricia O’Regan, paintings conservator, San Francisco

Kathryn O’Rourke, Department of Art and Art History, Trinity University

Fraser Ottanelli, Department of History, University of South Florida

Charles Palermo, Department of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies Program, College of William & Mary

Christian Parenti, Department of Economics, John Jay College, CUNY

Renée Petropoulos, artist, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles

Ellen Piccolo, Prince Street Gallery

Jacob Picheny, retired, City College of San Francisco

Michael Pierce, Department of History, University of Arkansas

John P. Pittman, Department of Philosophy, John Jay College, CUNY

Mantra Plonsey, El Cerrito, Calif.

Lawrence N. Powell, Tulane University

Paul Prescod, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Adam Proctor, Dead Pundits Society

David Pullins, The Frick Collection

Damian S. Quintanilla, Sr., alumnus, University of California, Merced

Joseph G. Ramsey, Departments of English and American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

John Rapko, College of Marin

Stephanie Rauschenbusch, artist, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Courtney Rawlings, Emory University

Orlando Reade, English Department, Princeton University

Adolph Reed, Jr., emeritus, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Touré Reed, Department of History, Illinois State University

Victoria S. Reed, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Susan M. Reverby, emerita, Wellesley College

Laurie Jo Reynolds, Art Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Mark Rosen, University of Texas at Dallas

Mark C. Rosenzweig, former director, Reference Center for Marxist Studies

Phyllis Rosenzweig, independent curator

Diana Maria Rossi, artist, Berkeley, Calif.

James H. Rubin, Department of Art, Stony Brook University

Blair Rutherford, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University

Fred Ryan, Shawville, Quebec

Jos Sances, artist and retired Teamster

Darryl Sapien, artist, San Francisco

Emilio Sauri, University of Massachusetts, Boston

David Schaafsma, Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago

Michele Schaal, San Francisco

Jesse Schaefer, former George Washington High School student

Michael Schreyach, Department of Art and Art History, Trinity University

Barry Schwabsky, The Nation

Harvey Schwartz

Cynthia Servetnick, San Francisco Preservation Consortium

Julie Seville, History Department, University of Chicago

Susan Shepard, historian, curator, and genealogist, Connecticut

Stephen Sheppard, Williams College

Will Shetterly, writer

Joseph Shieber, Lafayette College

Willis L. Shirk, Jr., Meraki Enterprises LLC, Lancaster, Penn.

Laurence Shute, emeritus, Economics Department, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Daniel Sidorick, Department of Labor Studies, Rutgers University

Korey Simeone, Los Angeles

Lisa Siraganian, Southern Methodist University

Jedidiah Sloboda, Philadelphia School District

Harvey Smith, National New Deal Preservation Association

John Curtis Smith, Wake Technical Community College

Preston H. Smith II, Mount Holyoke College

Richard Smith, architect, Swampscott Historical Commission, Swampscott, Mass.

Rogers M. Smith, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Davis Smith-Brecheisen, University of Illinois at Chicago

Laurel Sparks, Department of Fine Arts, Pratt Institute

Daniel Spaulding, Getty Research Institute

Ellen Spear, Norman Rockwell Museum

Michael Spear, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Kal Spelletich, San Francisco Art Institute

Joni Spigler, artist and art historian

Amy Dru Stanley, Department of History and the Law School, University of Chicago

Peter Stansky, Stanford University

Clay Steinman, emeritus, Media and Cultural Studies, Macalester College

Timothy Stewart-Winter, Department of History, Rutgers University—Newark

Steve Striffler, Anthropology Department, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Patricia Sullivan, University of South Carolina

Ted Swedenburg, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas

B. Alexandra Szerlip

Adam Szetela, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin at Madison

Paula Taylor

Rei Terada, University of California, Irvine

Lisa Thompson, The Living New Deal

Sam Thurston, painter and sculptor, Lowell, Vt.

Michael A. Tomlan, Cornell University

Joe Tompkins, Department of Communication Arts and Theatre, Allegheny College

Edgar L. Torres, Latin American and Latino Studies, City College of San Francisco

Preston Trombly, artist

Harold Turnquist, retired, Saint Paul Public Schools, Saint Paul, Minn.

Francine Tyler, Department of Art History, New York University

James A. van Dyke, University of Missouri

Mariah Vaughn

Robert Vitalis, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Christian Viveros-Fauné, Contemporary Art Museum, University of South Florida

Bryan Wagner, University of California, Berkeley

Alan Wallach, emeritus, Department of Art and Art History and American Studies Program, College of William & Mary

Lauren Ward

Mary Margaret Ward, Novato, Calif.

Kenneth Warren, Department of English, Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, University of Chicago

Shilyh Warren, University of Texas at Dallas

Andrew Weinstein, Department of Art History, Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, and Cooper Union

Jeff Wentzell

Stephen Whistler, artist, Napa, Calif.

Deirdre White, artist, City College of San Francisco and University of California, Davis

Eric White, artist, Los Angeles and New York

Ian McKibbin White, emeritus, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Jeff Whittington, San Francisco

David E. Wilkins, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond

Mark W. Wolfe, Emory University

Phoebe Wolfskill, Indiana University

Howard Wong, AIA

George Wright, emeritus, California State University, Chico

Joanna Wuest, Princeton University

Marnin Young, Art History Department, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University

Daniel Zamora, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Justyn Zolli, visual artist and museum professional