Then vs. Now
In 1936, the superintendent of the San Francisco School Board was approached by the WPA—Works Progress Administration—which was part of President FDR’s New Deal: “You’re building a new high school, Washington High. The federal government will pay the internationally recognized muralist, Victor Arnautoff, to paint thirteen frescos on the interior walls of the administration building. He calls his murals, The Life of Washington.” The WPA representative explained that the muralist taught at the California School of Fine Arts and would soon be teaching at Stanford. “He will have the murals completed in time for the opening of your school in the fall—at no cost to your District.”
The fact that Mr. Arnautoff was a Russian immigrant, a communist, and intended his murals as a “counter narrative” to what was usually taught in the schools, did not concern the School Board. It was free. Mr. Arnautoff’s radical purpose was to unsettle the viewers and provoke them into looking at American history “from a different, darker perspective”—showing Washington as a slave owner and Manifest Destiny as genocide—a death march. Nonetheless, it was free.
In 2019, the present San Francisco School Board decided that the same murals now glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and oppression of peoples of color—and must be destroyed, a part of “reparations” for slavery. Anyone who wants to preserve the murals is a white supremacists and a racist.
The difference between then and now? Then, Washington was the First President and a Founding Father. Now, he is seen—in politically correct eyes—as a hypocrite, a slave master, and a man whose immense wealth came from the blood, sweat, and tears of people of color. The 1936 Board members were not art critics; they were politicians. The same for the 2019 Board. For the members—then and now—the meaning portrayed in a work of art depends on the Board’s present constituents—not on what the art was intended to mean when the artist first created it.
The demand to remove or destroy New Deal works of art, believed by some to be racist, follows on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments. Volume 5 of my series, Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle, will deal with this issue—the removal or not of the Confederate statue in Central Park of my fictitious Mackenzie, Texas, whose statue twin stands in Ellwood Park in Amarillo, Texas. My love story is entitled, Colleen and the Statue: A Soldier’s Resurrection.
In my historical romance, the Confederate statue honoring Sgt. Nicholas Ruff, C.S.A., was erected in 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the sergeant’s death at Gettysburg, while serving in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Usually, histories of the Civil War—the “War Between the States,” in Southern terminology—focus on the number of soldiers killed, wounded, and missing. But especially in the Southern Army, for every soldier who never came home, there were children—lots of them. Perhaps a million orphans were left in the South at the end of the war! As these children became adults, they started to want to put up statues in honor of their fathers, whom they did not have while growing up. The statues would literally be “father figures.”
It’s significant that the organization most responsible for erecting statues of Confederate soldiers throughout the states of ex-Confederacy, in the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century, was The Daughters of the Confederacy, not The Widows of the Confederacy.
The orphans—especially girls—of Confederate soldiers pined for their fathers whom they never had while growing up. Therefore, then, when originally erected, the statues had nothing to do with slavery and glorification of an army who purpose was to defend slavery and preserve “states’ rights.” The statues were surrogate fathers—father figures—for orphans. That was then.
Now, in recent times, starting in the mid-1920s and the 1930s, white supremacist groups, such as the modern KKK, have claimed the statues as their own—as heroic defenders of the white race. The original meaning has been co-opted, so that now—today—in the first decades of the Twenty-First Century, long after the last Confederate veteran has died, and after almost all the children of Confederate soldiers have passed away, the racists, the white supremacists, Aryan Nation members, neo-Nazis, neo-KKK members, and the like, have made the statues of the Confederate soldier into symbols of the so-called “movement” to defend and preserve the white race.
This co-opting of the meaning of Confederate statues by these groups has caused a dilemma: Whether or not to remove the statues. Do they mean what the Daughters intended for them to mean—then? Or do they mean what the neo-Klan members say they mean—now? My Volume 5 about Miss Colleen and the Confederate statue in Mackenzie’s Central Park explores this controversy. It is the underlying background for the love story. At the end of the tale, the statue is still standing. “But should it be?” The reader will have to decide the answer to that question.