When murals depict traumatic history, schools must decide what stays on the wall

Updated October 14, 2022 at 2:42 PM ET
a mural
Part of a nearly century-old mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (Courtesy Town Destroyer)

A mural in George Washington High School in San Francisco has been the subject of a bitter dispute.

It includes the life-size image of a dead Native American, as well as a scene of George Washington and the people he enslaved. The city’s Board of Education voted to paint over the mural and later decided to cover it up. After three members of the board were recalled in an acrimonious election, the body rescinded the directive. It’s all chronicled in Town Destroyer, a new documentary streaming through October 16.

“The intent of the artist matters to some degree but it’s the impact on the audience that matters just as much if not more,” said Deborah Kaufman, who co-directed the film with Alan Snitow.

Jessica Young, a scholar who focuses on memory in the literature of genocide, told the filmmakers that the images in these controversial murals can be traumatizing over time.

“The definition of trauma is that it is a repetition,” said Young. “Sometimes [it’s] the outright repetition of the violent event itself, sometimes it’s the way we see something again and again in our mind’s eye. It can seem like I’m just walking into a building, but it’s the accumulation of these things that can, I think, over time lead to traumatization. Cumulatively, they can lead to real harm.”

Among the supporters of the mural are two of the high school’s prominent alumni: actor Danny Glover and Bay Area artist Dewey Crumpler, who was commissioned to paint a response to it in the late 1960s.

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Dewey Crumpler traveled to Mexico to study other muralists before painting a response to the mural at George Washington High School. (Courtesy GWHS Alumni Association)

Crumpler said artist Victor Arnautoff was critiquing American history in his 1936 artwork.

“All great murals exist to teach,” said Crumpler. “They exist to speak about history and history is full of discomfort. Arnautoff attempted to give us the clarity of our history, as all great works should do.”

When Crumpler was in high school he thought the Arnautoff mural should be removed. But before accepting the commission to paint the response mural, he insisted that neither his nor Arnautoff’s mural be destroyed. (The high school alumni association is working to have the school included on the National Registry of Historical Places as a means of protecting the mural, according to Lope Yap, Jr., the association’s vice-president).

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These two murals, each 8 x 24 feet, about the Abolition of Slavery in Vermont were painted by Sam Kerson in 1993. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/Sam Kerson)

A mural about the Underground Railroad in Vermont, which has been up for nearly 30 years in the student center of Vermont Law School, has been covered by a wall that was erected around it. The mural was unveiled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1994.

Over the years some law students and faculty charge that the artist’s naïve folk-art style portrays African-Americans as racist caricatures. Jameson Davis, one of the law students who objected to the mural, declined repeated requests from NPR for an interview.

a digital image
Sam preparing the digital images for the exhibition titled: “Song of the Silenced,” presented at La Muse en Goguette gallery, near Toulouse, France, September 2022. (Courtesy Katah)

Beth McCormack, a dean at the law school, said the mural is an affront to Vermont Law School’s commitment to diversity.

“Forcing us to display artwork, which courts have interpreted as speech, that is against our values, violates the First Amendment in that it compels speech,” said McCormack. “Even though speech is protected under the First Amendment, it also protects our right not to give a message that is inconsistent with our values.”

The Vermont artist who created the mural, Sam Kerson, now resides in Quebec. He suggested the school install a theatrical curtain to cover the mural, a solution, he said, that would still allow the work to be seen by those who wish to do so.

“For an institution to say ‘We’re going to whitewash this black history,'” Kerson said referring to his mural, “Now, that’s something else.”

Kerson has displayed less than life-size digital reproductions of his Underground Railroad mural in Quebec and, more recently, in France. He brought a lawsuit against the law school, citing the Visual Artists Rights Act, which protects the work of living artists. The legal action argues that “entombing” the artwork will cause it to deteriorate. A federal judge in Vermont has ruled that the law school has the right to cover Kerson’s mural but an appeal is expected to be heard early next year.

a mural
Fresco by Ann Rice O’Hanlon at the University of Kentucky. (Courtesy Mark Cornelison)

Black students at the University of Kentucky protested against a 1934 fresco by Ann Rice O’Hanlon that depicts four enslaved people bent over in a tobacco field. The university covered the fresco in 2015 and unveiled it two years later with added information for context. In 2018, the school commissioned Philadelphia artist Karyn Olivier to create a response to the O’Hanlon mural. Days after the murder of George Floyd, the university announced it would remove the mural. But Olivier said if that happens, she wants her artwork taken down.

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The University of Kentucky commissioned Karyn Olivier to create a response to the fresco. (Courtesy Mark Cornelison)

“I understand the impetus but I think in that act you’ve rendered my work blind and mute,” Olivier said. “[My work] can’t exist without the artwork it was created to confront. I think in one fell swoop, you’ve censored me as well.”

While the building that houses the mural has not been used since 2020, relatives of O’Hanlon have filed a lawsuit in state court to halt the removal, which they claim will likely destroy the fresco.

“What concerns us is the willingness of an institution to destroy a distinguished work of art,” said famed Kentucky writer Wendell Berry. “To destroy it forever is radically irresponsible.”

In Indiana, African-American college students have deemed images of the Ku Klux Klan in a campus mural to be offensive, even though the Klan is portrayed critically.

a mural
Students at Indiana University protested to remove a mural by Thomas Hart Benton that depicted the Ku Klux Klan. (Courtesy Bart Everson)

“We’re in a period where any Klan imagery whatsoever is considered offensive,” notes Henry Adams, an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University who has written several books about Thomas Hart Benton, the artist who included hooded Klan members and a cross burning in the Indiana mural.

Adams said Benton’s mural was an obvious tribute to the Indiana newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Klan’s control of state government.

“I think Benton showed a lot of courage in introducing a significant part of Indiana history. He was basically saying that history isn’t nice and we should look around us and talk about that. I think it’s a warning. It’s a warning to us today: democracy is always very vulnerable.”

For Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, these controversial murals are a teachable moment. She urges her students to consider the context of these artworks.

“These were artists who were critiquing American history as it was being taught in textbooks,” Khalid said. “Nothing is more subversive than that. And the fact that there is this movement to completely obliterate context, to not pay attention to the artist, to the moment it was produced in, is tragic for me. And as a historian, it pains me.”

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