It’s a cover-up! (Of a mural at my old high school.)

It’s a cover-up! (Of a mural at my old high school.)

George Washington High School

When I attended junior high and high school in San Francisco, Presidio Junior High covered grades seven through nine (yes, really!) and Washington High covered grades ten through twelve. I took California’s proficiency examination toward the end of the eleventh grade, passed, and moved with my mother to Sacramento, where I started that fall at Sacramento City College (I attended there one semester, then transferred to American River College, which seemed to have a better data processing program).

So I only attended George Washington High School for two years. But I believe I recognize the stairwell. The photographer’s vantage point (figure 1) appears to me to be beneath the principal’s office. As I recall, at least when I attended, students were forbidden from using this entrance. I didn’t know why, but I assumed it was to remind us that we were second-class citizens directed to side or rear entrances and barred from the main one. As I was being compelled to attend a place I absolutely despised, and as this was one of several schools where I was not protected from physical bullying, I had little reason to believe otherwise.
mural frs letters
Fig. 1. Image credited to Jim Wilson of the New York Times, April 9, 2019, via the Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, described as the lobby of George Washington High School. As I remember it, there was no such thing, certainly where this photograph was taken. It was just stairs. Fair use.[1]

I think it was in junior high, not in high school, where atrocities against American Indians were mentioned so briefly in passing that I was afraid to question them. So it’s a bit hard to imagine that even though this was a different school (albeit kitty-korner from the junior high), that we were forbidden from using that entrance out of sensitivity to Blacks or American Indians.

Karin Klein certainly raises that question with her argument in favor of covering over that mural (or series of murals).[2]

Her argument is interesting but I am deeply skeptical of her interpretation of the artwork:

What makes the mural even more sympathetic to anti-censorship advocates is its message, which was progressive, and even daring, for its time. Created by a communist Russian-American artist,Victor Arnautoff, as one of the artistic works sponsored by the New Deal, it gives an unflattering image of George Washington as a slave owner and shows white colonists stepping over the dead body of a Native American.

The wording has been heated on both sides – no surprise these days. A committee convened to examine the issue claimed that the mural glorified slavery, genocide and oppression. Did they even look at it? Do they know what glorifying means? The artwork is a clear statement to the opposite.[3]

I think that if Klein is correct in her interpretation, and I certainly see her logic, then Victor Arnautoff really pulled a fast one on the authorities at that time. It is inconceivable to me that they would have been sympathetic to such a portrayal, let alone allowed its placement where it might influence young minds.

Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html


  1. [1]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html
  2. [2]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html
  3. [3]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html