Two Black Educators on the Washington Murals — an Email Correspondence
Over the past several months SF Board of Education Commissioners have been have been inundated with emails about the Washington Murals which feature graphic images of a dead native American and enslaved Africans shucking corn and picking cotton.
Proponents of the historic mural, many of whom are members of the school alumni association who attended during the 50’s and 60’s, argue the murals are historic art that should be used to teach history. Student and parent leaders on the Native American Parent Advisory Council, and in the African American Parent Advisory Council, and NAACP have advocated for the murals to be painted over. If you are new to this story, CNN did an excellent write-up here.
While many of the emails I’ve received as a Commissioner are of the typical cut-and-paste or “YOU PEOPLE!!!” variety, there have been a few that have stood out.
Because my definition of equity includes uplifting the voices of folks that are most impacted by issues, the voices of parents, students and educators are the ones that have drawn my attention most. Where I have been able, I’ve responded to engage in dialogue.
The following email conversation took place between me and a fellow educator and is one of the most impactful. Below, with her permission I have posted a conversation I had with a fellow Black educator at Washington High School.
If you have been following this story closely, you can see how these types of conversations DO matter. They help us, as elected officials shape our thinking. They make their way into our commentary at Board Meetings and ultimately the decisions we make.
Subject: Racist Murals at GWHS
April 8, 2019 at 1:45 PM
My name is Sarah Frances, and I am an African-American staff member at George Washington High School in Special Education. I have worked at GWHS for the past 11 years and I have walked past those racist murals on more occasions that I care to recount.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the dialogue about the possible removal of the murals. I am in FULL AGREEMENT that these images need to be removed. I do not believe that in doing so, we are erasing or “white-washing” history. Unfortunately, that is something that can never be accomplished. I believe there is a place for such “art” whether it be in a book or a museum, and it would be an item or a place that I CHOSE to read or visit.
Seeing these awful images every work day is degrading and upsetting on so many levels. And I can strongly say that as a black woman, these are not the images I want the Black or Native American students to have to see every single day of their education. They should be replaced with positive images that promote love not hate and offer all kids, no matter their race, the experience to have a positive feeling when they are viewed. No student or staff member should ever have to be subjected to this racially insensitive piece of “art” in the public hallways of an institution where they are supposed to be safe and positively supported. It’s outrageous that these images are still on the walls in 2019. Absolutely absurd.
It seems the only people who want to keep them up are the ones whose races are NOT depicted negatively in the art. How hypocritical can one be? Ridiculous.
Please make the right choice and vote to have these awful murals removed at once.The staff and the students deserve so much better.
April 8, 2019 at 11:16 PM
Thank you so much for your email. I am in full agreement. People seem to care more about the life of a mural than they do about the lives experiences of Black and Brown students and educators who are harmed by these images each day. Not surprising. But disappointing to say the least.
[After mulling it over a day. I decided to write another email with further thoughts.]
April 9, 2019 at 4:00 PM
I really appreciate you taking the time to email me. As an African-American parent, I personally find the murals upsetting. My girls’ do as well. The Native American images are even more upsetting. It is dehumanizing to consistently depict Black folks as enslaved people who are nameless and faceless. It is even more dehumanizing to consistently depict Native Americans as a “vanishing race” or dead. (Did you know the poem “Ten Little Indians is a nursery rhyme that was used to teach number sense too little children? It talks about each Native American dying off until “there were none”.) The definition of structural racism is defined by impact, not intent. While the artist, a white man, may have intended his painting to start conversation about race and power dynamics, the intent has been in many cases to make Native American and Black students, staff and families feel unwelcome and unsafe in their school. I believe if we are going to tell these painful stories, and we should, we should center the voices of the folks who were most impacted: Black and Native American peoples.
As you may imagine, I am getting emails from constituents who say we should keep the murals because it is important to “remember history”. I believe history is important. The question I always ask is who’s history? Who’s history is centered? Who’s perspective is valued? When folks argue that we must preserve the murals for educational purposes, I believe they are speaking to non-Black and non-Native people. Black and Native American people are very aware of our own painful history and don’t need to be constantly reminded of our subjugation and murder at the hands of settlers, “explorers” and especially the founding fathers. When there are so few positive examples of our resistance, resilience and contributions, these negative depictions of our collective past are painful reminders that we have not yet achieved equal status as Americans. Did you know, not all schools celebrate Black History? Not all English teachers are required to teach books by Asian, Latinx, Native American and African-American authors? I am curious why so many of the folks who argue to preserve a mural for educational purposes, are not outraged about the lack of instruction about Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American history in many of our schools.
Instead of highlighting and centering the people who stole Native Land and enslaved African people, I believe we should be commemorating the communities whose land and labor this country was built upon. Uplifting underrepresented communities is a great way to start positive conversations about the people of color who contributed to making our country what it is today. It also allows future generations to have a sense of pride in their culture and the culture of others.
Again, thanks for taking time to write such a thoughtful letter. As a former high school English teacher at Galileo HS I encourage you to continue to communicate with me in making your voice heard. I would especially like to know what Commissions like me can do to increase access to quality programs at your school and support for equity focused educators throughout SFUSD. Thank you for all you are doing for our students and families in SFUSD!
April 9, 2019 at 5:01 PM
Good Afternoon Ms. Collins,
Thank you for both of your responses, particularly the latest one. I truly hope you are able to read your well-thought out perspective as it hits home on every essential point of what’s being missed in this argument. Those who have not been oppressed in this inhumane way are ignoring the daily impact not only on the Black and Native American students but the continual systematic exclusion country wide in educational system that refuses to acknowledge our people’s positive contributions to this society from every level. At some point, the tides need to shift to make way for these much needed changes that our children deserve. All that seems to be taught in history classes is still only about slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. Absurd. Why aren’t we requiring ethnic studies, black history studies, Native American studies, etc. if we are so keen to keep “remembering” our history? The positive elements not just the negativity. It’s imperative.
Thank you for your time,
June 27, 2019 at 9:29 AM
As you may have heard, in a unanimous decision, Commissioners voted to paint over the mural. If the process of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review takes too long, we agreed to cover them with panels.
Last Tuesday we also voted on several other major resolutions which will change the way we do things in SFUSD. Several resolutions were approved unanimously as well with very little fanfare: Changes to the Weighted School Formula for schools, directing more resources to sites and direct student services with PEEF, more student voice in wellness services, more art teachers in underserved schools.
Additionally, Commissioner Lam and I also introduced for first reading, another resolution to address your (and my) observation that much of US History only teaches about MLK and slavery. Our PK-12 Equity Studies Resolution will put together a central office Equity Studies Team of educators to define the experiences students will have in every grade, content area and school to ensure all kids learn Native American and Black (and Chinese, and LGBT, etc.) history in all classrooms… not just the ones that opt in. Please take a look and let me know your thoughts. The Board will officially review the resolution when we return from summer break in August.: 196-25A1 Equity Studies.pdf (168 KB)
Finally, I have been wanting to make important conversations and perspectives like ours more visible and was wondering if I might have your permission to post your emails (either in part or if full) on my blog. Please let me know if that’s OK, (whether anonymously or with your name cited.) I think your experience and perspectives need to be heard.
Thanks again, for reaching out, and I hope you have a great summer break!
June 27, 2019 at 11:01 AM
Good Morning Alison,
Thank you for your email. Yes, I have been following this issue closely and I was thrilled beyond words to learn of the unanimous vote by the Board to cover and/or take down the murals at George Washington High School. It was a huge boost in my confidence for a broken system to begin to right itself and it spoke volumes to SFUSD’s commitment to our staff and children of color to not only listen to our concerns but to put those words into action. I am also happy to hear the other important resolutions that the board voted on to improve conditions and services in our schools. It is my hope that the rest of the school communities can begin to focus on these areas of need that will bring us together (not divide us) and will help improve the learning environment for our students. I am a firm believer that everything begins with education and if we expect our children of color to meet and/or exceed societal demands, then it is our duty to provide them with the necessary tools, academically, physically, and emotionally.
I absolutely love the idea the Equity Studies Resolution and creating a curriculum that encompasses a variety of groups for students to learn about at each grade level. I look forward to pouring over the pdf that you included in your email and will happily share my thoughts.
By all means, yes, I give permission to use any and/or all of my email for your blog and definitely you can use my name. I am still amazed at the push back I have received from many of my non-black colleagues about removing the murals. I hope that it will help others understand more clearly our perspectives on the negative effects it has had.
Thank you, again, Alison, for listening to my concerns amongst others and moving forward with the choice you made, despite all the pressure to leave things as status quo. Enjoy the rest of your summer!
To learn more about this issue you can listen to the following podcast series from The Bay via KQED News , “A Mural That Doesn’t Age Well: The Debate Over the George Washington Murals in S.F.“