Victor Arnautoff didn’t just paint George Washington onto the walls of the San Francisco high school named after the first president in 1936. He painted Washington into them.
Arnautoff used the fresco technique he had learned from his mentor, the masterful Mexican painter Diego Rivera. First came the arriccio, an underlayer of rough, light-brown plaster on which he would sketch his design. Then came the intonaco, a smooth, white plaster high in lime. While it was still wet, he added il colore, ground colored pigments that gave his murals life. As the plaster dried, a chemical reaction with the air around it called carbonatazione fused the color into the wall.
That is why now, as the San Francisco Board of Education has determined that it is harmful for students to view the murals’ depictions of Washington stepping over a dead Native American and commanding enslaved men on his plantation, they cannot be put into storage or moved to a museum. The murals — 13 individual works spanning 1,600 square feet of the entry hall and main stairwell — are part of the school.
The board first voted to paint over the murals, but after widespread public outrage, it partially reversed itself. The plan now is to cover them with solid panels, although supporters of the mural object and insist any covering must be removable.
This is the story of the layers of history that will continue to exist underneath, whether the murals are covered by curtains, panels or paint.
Washington as a slave owner: Arriccio
George Washington owned human beings before he ever made a decision to do so; he inherited 10 enslaved people at the age of 11 when his father died.
He purchased dozens more as an adult. And when he married Martha Custis in his late 20s, she brought even more enslaved people with her to Mount Vernon.
“There wasn’t much evidence prior to the revolution that he ever considered slavery to be wrong,” said Mary V. Thompson, a Mount Vernon historian and author of the new book “‘The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret’: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon,” in an interview with The Washington Post.
But then came the Revolutionary War, and for the first time in his life, Washington spent time in areas where chattel slavery was less common, even taboo. Plus, there was all that talk of “liberty” floating around.
“He’s leading a war where people are saying that people are born free, that freedom is a god-given right,” Thompson said. “And he’s not stupid. He can see the hypocrisy of owning slaves.”
In 1778, Washington sent a letter to his cousin confiding that he wanted to “get clear” of slave ownership. At the time, it wasn’t even legal to free them without a special act from the state legislature.
He stopped buying and selling enslaved people after the Revolutionary War, Thompson said. But when it became legal to free them in 1782, he didn’t.
And what kind of slave owner was he? He made efforts to keep families together on the same property. He criticized other plantation owners who were abusive.
But there’s also a record of him ordering an enslaved man to be whipped for walking on the lawn, Thompson said. Washington aggressively pursued runaways, and took steps to prevent his enslaved people from being freed accidentally while visiting free states. Plus, he was a workaholic, and sometimes expressed an obtuse dismay that the people he enslaved didn’t, by his estimation, work as hard as he did.
Washington left instructions to free the 123 people he owned when he died, which was a rare move at the time, and one that he hoped would set an example. But those instructions came with some big asterisks.
First, he stipulated that the enslaved people wouldn’t actually be freed until after his wife’s death. Martha worried this would entice them into murdering her, so she freed them a year later, largely out of fear.
Second, Washington had no right to free the 153 enslaved people from his wife’s estate, since they technically belonged to her first husband’s family; she only had “use” of them while she was alive.
This was a major complication, because the two groups had spent decades together. Many were intermarried and had children. With only half of a family freed, some founded settlements nearby, while others continued working on Washington’s properties for a low wage.
Speaking of properties, George Washington’s lifelong pursuit of Native American land is one of the least-explored aspects of his life, but it took up a lot of his time, as explored by Dartmouth professor Colin G. Calloway in his recent book “The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation.”
“Washington lived in a world where Indian people were present and almost omnipresent,” Calloway told The Post.
As a young man, Washington started his military career alongside Native American politicians and warriors much more sophisticated than he was.
As a landowner, he constantly sought to expand his holdings with Native American land, claiming or buying large tracts and then fighting protracted battles to prove the deeds he held legitimate.
As commander of the Continental Army, he ordered the destruction of indigenous communities when it helped the American cause. At the same time, he enlisted and promoted Lt. Col. Joseph Louis Cook — an African and Abenaki man also known as Atiatoharongwen, who led Oneida warriors against the British. He wrote of his gratitude to Cook several times and sent him gifts.
As president, Washington frequently received Native American diplomatic delegations at his residence in Philadelphia. When American settlers didn’t abide by treaty boundaries, he complained that only “a Chinese Wall, or a line of troops” would keep them from encroaching on Native American land.
Washington believed the government should offer a fair price to Native Americans for their land, and the “opportunity” to embrace “American-style civilization,” Calloway said, “but if they say no, then he describes them as recalcitrant savages who need to be ‘extirpated’ ” — which is an old-fashioned word for genocide.
There’s “an element of reality” to the mural showing Washington standing over the dead Native American, he said. But he adds, “You can’t tell people who are offended that the depictions of themselves and their people are not offensive.”
Portrait of the artist: Intonaco
When Arnautoff started work on the mural in 1935, he knew much of this history. But few at the time did — students weren’t generally taught in school that the first president owned people, nor that he had ordered the destruction of Native American villages.
Not that Arnautoff had gone to American schools anyway.
As a young man, he was forced to flee his native Russia when he fought on the losing side against the Bolsheviks. He spent several years in exile in China before immigrating in 1925 to San Francisco, where he studied art.
In 1929, Arnautoff moved again, to Mexico, where he became an assistant to the legendary muralist Diego Rivera. There his anti-communist political outlook “made a 180-degree change,” according to his biographer, art historian Robert Cherny. For two years, Arnautoff worked with the communist-leaning Rivera on two major works, and the men had a lot of time to talk politics.
Arnautoff returned to San Francisco in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. In 1935, through a New Deal project, he got the commission to fill the brand-new George Washington High School with murals depicting Washington’s life and times.
Arnautoff studied Washington’s life carefully before painting his murals over 10 months. And according to Cherny, what he came up with was a “major counternarrative” to how people understood Washington at the time.
“Arnautoff has not presented the Washington of the cherry tree,” Cherny said in an interview with The Washington Post.
In almost all of the panels, Cherny explained, Washington is off to one side, de-emphasizing his importance in the events depicted. In a stairwell mural covering the Revolutionary War, Washington is tucked in a corner on a horse, “but in the center of that mural he showed four working-class men raising the new flag of the republic.”
In a mural depicting the winter at Valley Forge, Washington and other officers are dressed in clean, warm uniforms. Enlisted men are dressed in rags and freezing, emphasizing the class differences in the new nation.
Then there are the two murals that have caused the most controversy. In one, Washington stands to the side, listening to a report from a white slave overseer at Mount Vernon. The man gestures to the men in the center — enslaved African Americans shucking corn and bagging cotton. In the background, enslaved women pick cotton in the fields.
It was “a way of calling attention” to the split between Washington’s principles and actions, Cherny explained.
On the opposite wall, Washington stands with other Founding Fathers on a platform, one arm pointing westward. In front of him lies the body of a Plains Indian man, facedown and stiff, clearly dead but with no obvious wounds. Over him walk four white settlers armed with rifles, painted with black and white pigment against the mural’s otherwise vibrant colors.
“He and Rivera had used [black and white paint] previously to depict things they found outdated or in some way objectionable,” Cherny said.
The mural is an indictment of white America’s expansion to the West — to California itself.
These two murals are the largest, and Cherny said it is not by accident they are the first thing students encounter when they enter the school’s front doors.
“Arnautoff is depicting the two great injustices of early American history: slavery and the genocide and dispossession of the first people,” Cherny said.
Art critics hailed the murals when the school first opened; it’s unclear to Cherny whether they supported Arnautoff’s “counternarrative” or if it was too subtle to understand.
Arnautoff officially joined the Communist Party in 1938, according to FBI records. In the 1950s, he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for a cartoon he drew depicting then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in an unflattering light.
In 1963, he returned to Russia, by then the Soviet Union, where he spent the rest of his life.
‘Response’ to the murals: Il Colore
Three years after Arnautoff left the U.S., Dewey Crumpler first saw the murals. He was a junior at a rival high school visiting for a football game. As a young black man, he thought the depictions of people of color were “horrible,” he recently told Artnet.
Two years later, the Black Student Union at George Washington High School demanded their removal, saying the images of enslaved ancestors picking cotton and shucking corn were degrading. Local Black Panthers joined them. They enlisted Crumpler, by then an activist and art student, to paint a new artwork over it.
The divide over the fate of the murals was more generational than black vs. white. The San Francisco Examiner reported the local Negro Historical and Cultural Society opposed any changes to the mural, saying it was an “honest and truthful account of the condition of black people in colonial America.” The students pushed back, saying members of the historical society “don’t have to live with the murals every day.”
At a school board meeting, one female student shouted, “It seems to me you people keep reminding us that we were once slaves!”
As Crumpler remembers it, the arts commission was opposed to hiring “a kid” to make any changes, so, like Arnautoff had decades earlier, he headed to Mexico to learn more about mural techniques. He also researched Arnautoff’s murals and learned about their subversive meaning.
“At that point, I said very clearly that I would not be a party to destroying the mural,” Crumpler told Artnet. What he offered the student activists was to create “response” murals around Arnautoff’s work that lifted up achievements by African, Asian, Latinx and Native Americans throughout history.
The plan was finally approved in 1970. Crumpler finished them five years later, right about the time he finished his master’s degree in art. Unlike Arnautoff’s work, the response murals were painted on panels that can be removed. But they have hung unchanged in the school ever since.
Today he is an art professor at the San Francisco Art Institute — and he’s adamantly opposed to covering the Arnautoff murals.
“My mural is part of the Arnautoff mural, part of its meaning, and its meaning is part of mine,” he told Artnet. “If you destroy his work of art, you are destroying mine as well.”
A controversy explodes: Carbonatazione
Native American and black students, teachers and parents have never stopped complaining about the murals. They say the images reinforce stereotypes, make it harder to learn and traumatize students who have no choice but to view them day in and day out. At a recent school board meeting, a current student said she was sick of hearing classmates say, “I’ll meet you at the dead Indian.”
Last year, there were about 2,000 students at the high school; 100 identified as African American, Native American, Alaska Native or Pacific Islander, according to state data. The majority — more than 60 percent — were of Asian descent.
In December, the school board convened a “Reflection and Action Group” to evaluate the history of the murals and decide if they had a future. After four public meetings, the group recommended the murals be “removed,” even though that’s impossible. Half a dozen local activist groups endorsed the decision.
In June, the school board voted unanimously — student experience came first, and the murals would be digitally archived and painted over.
A few days later, conservative New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss launched the murals into the national conversation as the latest example of “snowflakes seek[ing] a safe space.”
School Board president Stevon Cook and vice president Mark Sanchez published a rebuttal to Weiss’s column in Artnet, saying, “Ultimately, our school board came down on the side of communities that we all know have had their priorities ignored when it comes to just about anything.” Even with Weiss’s invocation of the buzzword of the day, the school board is actually required to provide a safe place for students to learn.
They also argued “those in favor of keeping the mural are predominantly of European descent, and those protesting the mural are overwhelmingly people of color.”
But since then, some of the school board’s most prominent critics have been people of color, too.
Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, who is black, compared activists who support the measure to “boorish” Trump supporters. Actor Danny Glover, an alumnus of the school, is against the measure. So is the head of the local NAACP chapter, who said the display “tells the whole truth about Mr. Washington being complicit in the slave trade.”
Others suggested lawsuits and even a ballot measure to prevent the paint job.
Cherny, the art historian, has gone to every public meeting. At one of them, he was shouted down by activists who want the murals gone.
He is quick to say he cannot put himself in the shoes of students of color who are offended by the murals. But he also points out that those students aren’t given much opportunity to learn about the context or symbolism contained in them. There are no plaques with explanations next to them. There is no high school orientation class about them. In fact, California high school students don’t even cover the time period depicted. State educational standards designate fifth grade only for instruction on the nation’s founding.
But at a school board meeting, board member Alison Collins disagreed, saying the murals were as outdated as 1930s textbooks.
“We don’t teach reading with ‘Dick & Jane,’ and we aren’t using murals to teach our complex histories,” she said.
After weeks of uproar, the school board proposed a new plan to cover the murals with solid panels. If they thought it was a compromise, the public didn’t see it that way.
At an Aug. 13 school board meeting, those supporting the mural — none of whom were current students or teachers — said solid panels were still too much and that school board members were “infantilizers” who should be recalled.
Those against the mural, which included current students and teachers, questioned why another vote was being held after the school board had already made a decision. One woman from the Mayagna and Seneca tribes compared it to the country’s long history of broken treaties with Native Americans.
Cook spoke last. Fighting back tears, he urged the audience to let the board get back to work after the vote, reminding them of the district’s chronic absenteeism problem, and that 1 in 25 San Francisco students is homeless.
“I think everyone here agrees that the murals depict a racist history,” he said.
“No!” a man shouted.
The school board voted 4-3 to reverse its prior decision and cover the murals with panels. The plan must now pass muster with the California Office of Historic Preservation, which oversees the protection of “historic resources.”
After the vote, nearly everyone in the audience got up and left.
correction: A previous version of this story misstated the tribal identity of a woman at the school board meeting. She is Mayagna and Seneca, not Mayagna-Seneca.
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