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U. of Kentucky to remove mural depicting slaves following unrelated racial incident

Famed author and alumnus Wendell Berry sued to protect the mural, arguing it is property of the state

The University of Kentucky will restart plans to remove a mural criticized for its depiction of black people after an unrelated incident on campus involving an intoxicated white student using racial slurs against a black student residential hall staffer.

“The mural will be relocated at some point,” Jay Blanton, the university’s chief communication officer, told The College Fix via email on December 16. “A date has not been scheduled.”

The mural is almost 90-years-old and is a product of Kentucky artist and university alumna Ann Rice O’Hanlon, who painted it in 1934 with the support of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, according to a research guide published by the University of Kentucky.

The mural (pictured) is meant to show the history of the state, with its different levels representing waves of progress, according to the guide. O’Hanlon painted several black slaves picking cotton, other black figures apparently segregated from whites and additional black people playing music for white people.

One of her motives to paint the mural “was to document the importance of blacks to this nation’s development and to point out the unequal social status suffered by black people throughout our national history,” according to an article in The Kentucky Review from the university’s archives. Complaints against the mural go back to the 1970s, but the university’s latest impetus to move it is a racial incident from early November.

A student (video below) is accused of using racial slurs while intoxicated against a black peer who worked at a residence hall.

The university’s president condemned the incident last month.

“I want to provide updates following the recent violent and racist assault that horrified so many of us and deeply traumatized Black students, employees and community members,” President Eli Capilouto said.

“We are taking steps that I believe do respond to some of the concerns we have heard over the past two weeks…one of the projects that passed is a renewal and revitalization of Memorial Hall,” he stated. “Following the removal and relocation of a controversial mural, it will be transformed as a space, particularly for our students, to celebrate diversity and inclusion on our campus.”

“For many, Memorial Hall is an iconic building in the heart of our campus,” Capilouto continued. “For many others, it is a space where a mural, in place since the 1930s, depicts in a distorted fashion the way enslaved people and other marginalized peoples were treated in Kentucky.”

However, the removal of the mural may face legal issues. Alumnus Wendell Berry, an author and activist, filed a lawsuit along with his wife Tanya, a relative of mural artist O’Hanlon and an heir to her estate.

The 2020 lawsuit aimed to stop the removal of the mural. The Fix reached out to The Berry Center, which promotes the author’s writings and advocacy work, to ask if Berry could provide comments about the proposed mural removal and whether they intend to continue to oppose it. The Center responded that they do not handle Berry’s correspondence or requests and did not provide an email contact.

The issue remained in mediation as of December 1, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“I don’t think that the president has the right to destroy any part of the commonwealth,” Berry told The New York Times in 2020. “How soon do we get to the point where we just don’t want to have a past at all?

MORE: College administrator reportedly censored campus artwork due to ‘liability’ issues

IMAGE: University of Kentucky (detail)

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Colleen Dean is an graduate student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, currently pursuing an M.A. in Catholic Studies. She received her undergrad degree from Franciscan in political science with two minors in Spanish and human life studies. She has also written for Lone Conservative.