Kentucky Will Uncover Mural It Covered

Many black students were angered by its depiction of slavery. University says context and other works of art will be added.

September 2, 2016

In November, the University of Kentucky announced that it was covering up a controversial Depression-era mural that has been criticized for years by black students and faculty members for its depiction of slavery. Eli Capilouto, the university's president, released an essay at the time in which he wrote about being moved by the pain black students told him the mural creates for them.

The mural covers most of a wall in Memorial Hall, a building used for many events and that many students walk though all the time.

On Thursday, Capilouto announced that that the mural will be on display again. He wrote that a panel he appointed last year to study the issue had produced a series of recommendations that would be adopted to provide context and alternative perspectives to the mural.

Capilouto wrote that the mural "told a story through a talented artist’s eyes within the context of her time." Today, he added, "it is time to tell the story more completely and through the eyes of many experiences -- preserving the art as part of our history, but adding to it to tell a more complete and sensitively rendered story of our human experience."

To that end, he said that university would:

  • Surround the mural with "other works of art from a variety of perspectives that provide a larger narrative of our history, our aspirations, our shortcomings and the progress we still must make."
  • Create "digital boards that will also tell the history of the mural and of the artist who gave it life along with other aspects of our institution’s history."
  • Plan programs in Memorial Hall "on issues of race and identity from many perspectives."

The painting is the work of Ann Rice O'Hanlon, who in 1934 painted the fresco -- then the largest one ever painted by a woman -- in Memorial Hall. Many art experts have praised the fresco as an outstanding example of the Depression-era Public Works of Art program, which paid for the fresco.

The images that are controversial show black people working in tobacco fields, black musicians performing for a group of white people, and a Native American holding a tomahawk.

Erica Littlejohn, a Ph.D. student in neurophysiology and president of the University of Kentucky Black Graduate and Professional Students Association, said she was disappointed in Thursday's announcement. She said that many black students remain concerned about the mural and don't want it on display -- even with more context. But more broadly, she said that black students last fall presented administrators with numerous issues, and the mural has received the most attention, while more important issues to many students have not. She said that the university needs more minority graduate students and faculty members, and a climate survey, among other things.

"The mural was low-hanging fruit" when the university announced in November that it was being covered, Littlejohn said, "and now they are undoing something they did last fall."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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