Enlighten or Erase? Saving the Depression Era WPA murals at George Washington High School04/06/19
posted by Paul Judge
I was likely about 8 years old when my dad brought me to the campus of George Washington High School to watch a varsity football game. Some of the older kids on our block were on the Washington football team and a boyfriend of one of my sisters was playing on the opposing Sacred Heart team.
During time-outs my attention was drawn to the view of the Golden Gate, the columns in front to the auditorium and the athletes portrayed in relief on the south wall of the football stadium.
After the game my dad walked me through the main lobby pointing out the large murals portraying the life of George Washington. He interpreted the scenes of history and struggle, pitfalls and achievements depicted in them. It seemed unreal to me that there could be a place as rich as this, a school like this, in my own neighborhood.
Amidst the Great Depression the city constructed a high school campus occupying nearly four square blocks atop a hill commanding a view in all directions of San Francisco. In addition it adorned the campus with artistic works depicting history, culture, science, and athletics made possible by the federal Work Progress Administration (WPA). In the middle of the worst economic depression people held hope and vision to invest in the education of future generations.
During my schooling career at Washington High 1965 – 1968 the murals were the topic of two instructional moments in a US History class conducted by Colin Covey and an English class conducted by Mr. Lawrence a student teacher from SF State. Each drew attention to the depiction of slavery and the destruction of the native people and cultures during expansion and settlement spawned by Manifest Destiny. History wasn’t being denied, rather it was made instructional to understand the larger pageant of social conflict and progress. Such ‘learning moments’ came amidst the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War effort and the rising identity and political awareness of many disenfranchised / under represented ethnic groups and members of society
Currently ‘The Life of Washington’ mural panels created by artist Victor Arnautoff are threatened with destruction. The GWHS Alumni Association is mounting opposition to an effort by the SF Unified School District to censor and remove them due to a complaint that they are offensive. The following information and call to protect these historic works of art is from the GWHS Alumni Association:
GWHS' Life of Washington murals face destruction or defacement in the next few months. Their historically accurate depiction of slavery and Native American genocide are seen as disrespectful or threatening by some who propose to paint over all thirteen separate murals. WPA artist Victor Arnautoff’s intention was to forthrightly depict the injustices experienced by people marginalized by the American Revolution and westward movement. It is vital that these murals, among S.F.'s most significant WPA art, continue to be displayed and discussed, with appropriate sensitivity.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Write, email or call Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews and each Board of Ed Commissioner.
Sign the Petition at
Give to Save the Murals Fund at
or send a check made out to GWHSAA (add Save the Murals on memo line).
Share this information with your friends! Read the GWHSAA's media release
“Preserve the Murals: Enlighten or Erase?”