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The art lesson, a tale from my youth

By Mike Andrew 

Between 1967 and 1970 I attended George Washington High School in San Francisco.

It was the same high school my father went to in the 30s, but in his day it was brand new – one of hundreds of WPA projects that not only put people to work, but improved their lives and communities.

Like many other WPA projects, it was decorated with murals – FDR’s administration thought it was important to hire artists as well as masons, plumbers, and carpenters. And since the school was named for George Washington, the murals depicted scenes from his life.

Of course, there were the scenes you’d expect. Sturdy colonial militia faced off against the British redcoats, and Washington looked stately at his inauguration.

But the artist also included panels depicting Washington supervising his slaves as they picked and baled cotton.

For more than three decades, no one complained about these scenes, but in 1968 the Black Student Union demanded that they be removed. The School Board insisted that the mural should be preserved – it was “art” after all, and all of them were white.

After being put off for several months, the BSU got fed up and shut down the school.

In the end, the School Board settled on a compromise – they would cover the offensive scenes till new murals could be painted depicting the contributions of people of color to American society. They hadn’t even started by the time I graduated, and they were only half-way done by the time my brother graduated five years later, but eventually they did finish, and the murals are still there to this day.

I was 16 when the BSU shut down the school. It was the first time I’d ever seen people my own age take collective action against authority. I was impressed.

The next year we shut the school down again to protest the war in Vietnam.

An enterprising reporter working for one of the local newspapers discovered that the artist who did the mural in the 30s was Victor Arnautoff, a Russian emigre who’d studied under communist muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico. As it turned out, Arnautoff painted the slave-scenes deliberately to show the underlying contradictions of the American Revolution.

The thing that always fascinated me about this story is that it took a foreign-born artist, not someone who grew up in Jim Crow era America, to notice and comment on the ugly side of US history.

That alone is a convincing argument for opening our borders to immigrants.


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