High school alumni group sues to keep San Francisco mural that some call racist

People fill the main entryway of George Washington High School in San Francisco to view the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural titled "Life of Washington" during an open house in August for the public.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

An alumni group has sued to challenge the San Francisco school board’s decision to cover a mural displayed in a public high school that some have criticized as racist.

After voting unanimously in June to cover the “Life of Washington” mural, the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education voted 4-3 in August to place panels over the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot art installation, rather than paint over it.

The artwork was created in 1936 and depicts the life of George Washington. It shows slaves being sold at market and working in the fields of the president’s Mount Vernon home and the body of a dead Native American surrounded by white settlers. Activists have said the mural at George Washington High is offensive for its depiction of Native Americans and African Americans.

The mural was painted by Victor Arnautoff, one of the foremost muralists in the Bay Area during the Depression. New Deal scholars have argued that Arnautoff, a Russian-born communist and social critic, critically depicts unsavory aspects of American history in his work. But as early as the 1960s, some students at the high school have argued that the mural’s imagery is offensive and racist.


Dozens of people — many of them alumni — packed the school lobby in early August to view the mural before the latest school board vote. There has been much pushback about the decision to cover the art, including a potential preservation effort and a petition signed by more than 400 academics in protest of the mural’s destruction.

KPIX-TV reports the school’s alumni association filed a lawsuit Friday asking the education board to rescind its vote to remove the mural from public view and conduct an environmental review.

“We are dedicated to the proposition that the Arnautoff murals should be preserved as a magnificent work of public art for future generations and used, as the artist intended, as a way of teaching history,” association President John Rothmann said in a statement.

The school board did not immediately respond to the filing.

Times staff writer Alexa Diaz contributed to this report.