Open Letter on the Life of Washington Murals

As parents of children in San Francisco Unified School District, we hope that our schools will be safe, nurturing environments for learning. We hope students will see themselves and their own culture represented in curriculum and throughout the school day. At some schools, this cultural inclusion means world language classes, and at others, it means incorporating foods into the lunch menu that are more familiar to our immigrant students.

So what happens when a school environment isn’t culturally safe? That’s the question surrounding the “Life of Washington” murals at Washington High. Decades of implicit bias have been ingrained in students and visitors who accept the murals’ presence as “history” and a “teaching tool.” Over 80 years, thousands of students have passed by a depiction of a murdered Indigenous person - a person with no name, no life story, ostensibly no importance. It is a settler-colonizer’s view of history.

In other frames Indigenous people are portrayed as shirtless savages and Black people as meek slaves shucking corn and picking cotton. None of those individuals has a name or story. Not only is it a settler-colonizer’s view of history, it is a stereotypical portrayal of enslaved people. At Mount Vernon, talented African (or Black) artisans, coopers, seamstresses, and more were enslaved & forced to use their talents without pay, yet if the alumni association is to be believed, the only way to know the truth of what happened with Washington’s role in enslaving people is for students to view Arnautoff’s murals. Today, SFUSD students discuss the issue of slaveholding among the Founding Fathers in middle school. Incoming ninth graders to Washington High already know that the first president was a “flawed man” and don’t need an inaccurate painting to tell them.

And what of Arnautoff? We do not know the intent of his work, but we know the impact. Students walk by these images daily, accepting that violence and oppression of people of color are unchangeable realities. In the mid-1960’s, hundreds of Black Washington High students marched, chanting “Take It Down.” The Black Panthers worked to get the mural removed. Washington High School held a “Breakthrough Day” for students to discuss racial tensions, and what emerged was resentment from Black students about the murals. At the time, Black Student Unions throughout San Francisco were demanding improved curriculum and environments in their high schools. Mayor Joseph Alioto responded by calling for “punks, troublemakers and provocateurs” to be “picked out and suspended.” We wonder if Arnautoff, praised among leftists in his own day and now, would fall under Alioto’s labels. We wonder if our children will still have to rally and advocate to get these murals permanently removed.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 24, 1968 p1

In 1968, vice principal Allen Torlakson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “About the only purpose the mural has served, other than a vague coloration, is as a student meeting place. For years, the by-word has always been, ‘I’ll meet you under the dead Indian.’” Fellow caregivers, we ask you: how would you react if you heard your child say, “Meet me under the dead Indian”? We were horrified to learn that Washington High students still say this. Nothing that inspires those words belongs in a school.

Monuments to slavery and oppression are seeing a reckoning across the country, and not only in the South. California has had streets, schools, and even a town renamed. The state department of education completely rewrote the way fourth graders learn about Spanish colonization. San Francisco removed the “Early Days” portion of Pioneer Monument. District 10 Supervisor and former School Board Commissioner Shamann Walton told the San Francisco Examiner, “I don’t understand how people who are not affected by the depiction of the mural can come in here and tell us how Native Americans should see the mural and what’s on there, when they came here and told us it was offensive to them and caused problems and issues for their community.”

The Reflection and Action Committee, formed to determine what to do about the murals, voted to paint over them while also creating a digital archive. The committee voted that the painting should be completed before the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year -- not in three years, which was the extremely suspect time frame from the Buildings & Grounds Department’s consultants. The committee’s rationale is:

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native American and African-Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it focuses on the legacy of the artists rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD Equity Definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than what its intent ever was; it’s not counter narrative if it traumatizes students and community members.

Across the nation, organizers are working hard to #TakeDown racist monuments and symbols, working to change our culture and give our youth a clean slate free of some of the racism we take in through our culture. In some places, the racist opposition rallies with the confederate flag. Progressive San Francisco racism looks a little different but has the same impact. It’s people in the boardroom shouting over School Board members who are people of color during a meeting. Pushing Native people who hold up signs. Arguing that their love of art or a White narrative of history are more important than the trauma caused to Native and Black youth and the implicit biases and internalized racism the murals create. Making plans to sue the school board and use expensive stalling tactics if the board makes any changes to the murals -- stealing much needed resources from San Francisco youth. In a city where 50% of White families have refused to send our children to public school with kids of color since efforts at integration in the 1970s, we have plenty of work to do in our city towards racial justice.

We ask supporters of the murals why they are putting their time & energy into upholding a traumatizing & white narrative of history at a time when the Trump administration is threatening to round up immigrants, when SFUSD needs all the dollars at our disposal to close the opportunity gap, when Breitbart news rallies to their cause. The words of the civil rights song come to mind: “Which side are you on my people?” Each of us chooses where we show up in this moment, what history we create with our actions.

Photos show those fighting to stop efforts to Take Down confederate imagery and the Life of Washington murals

Then again, sometimes it’s about “the silence of our friends.” Some in San Francisco political circles are choosing not to take a stand in this fight, declaring, “it’s a school board issue.” Yet the school board is routinely asked to take a position on City Hall matters. Parent PAC and Tenants & Families PAC use parents in their political posturing. Four former school board members currently sit on the Board of Supervisors, and our mayor is a SFUSD alumna. It is unclear to us how political players who normally move between City Hall and 555 Franklin so smoothly suddenly find Van Ness an uncrossable boundary. When election time comes, we will remember your silence.

We commend and thank the individuals and organizations who have endorsed the recommendations of the Reflection and Action committee, including:

Richmond District Democratic Club

Chinese Progressive Association

Coleman Advocates

SF Families Union

SF Rising

Showing Up For Racial Justice - SF (SURJ-SF)

Supervisor Shamann Walton

David Campos, DCCC Chair

Honey Mahogany, DCCC AD 17

Alysabeth Alexander Tut, DCCC AD 17

Jen Low, DCCC AD 19

Kelly Akemi Groth, DCCC AD 19

We hope that more caregivers and allies will reflect on SFUSD’s core values -- Student-Centered, Fearless, United, Social Justice, Diversity -- and join the call to #PaintItDown.

Julie Roberts-Phung, Brandee Marckmann, and Dr. Scott Bravmann are SFUSD parents