One of the largest fresco paintings of its kind is covered with cloth at the University of Kentucky’s iconic Memorial Hall after UK President Eli Capilouto met with several black students to talk about the portrayal of African-American slaves in the artwork.
Kentuckian Ann Rice O’Hanlon, who earned a bachelor’s degree at UK in 1932, painted the fresco on commission for the Works Progress Administration in 1934. The mural is 45 feet by 8 feet and depicts an interpretation of Kentucky history from the time of pioneer settlers to the early 19th century.
One scene portrays slaves bent at the waist in a tobacco field with a train imposed directly over them. The imagery acknowledges Kentucky, at least in part, was built on the backs of slave labor. That recognition by a young white woman in a Southern state during the Depression had to have been a bold and brave statement.
Critics of the fresco have said it glosses over the reality of slavery, does not account for the racist Jim Crow era of O’Hanlon’s time and is insulting to black students today when they attend lectures and events at Memorial Hall.
Capilouto can be commended for giving thoughtful consideration to the students who met with him recently to talk about the fresco. And perhaps he made a politically wise decision to cover the fresco while an appropriate response is determined.
In a university blog posting, Capilouto wrote, “In spite of the artist’s admirable, finely honed skill that gave life to the (mural), we cannot allow it to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit.”
If Capilouto is leaning toward a solution that adds context and understanding to the O’Hanlon fresco, then the university will be fulfilling its mission to teach and enlighten our state. But if anyone believes the solution is to remove or erase the art and its message, the university will have failed.
Removing the fresco would not change the fact that many black students at the University of Kentucky are descended from slaves and that many white students are descended from slave owners. That is our history, and we still have a long way to go in healing from the institution of slavery.
This week in the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper, acclaimed Kentucky author Wendell Berry criticized UK for trying to censor O’Hanlon’s art. Berry is an American intellectual, and he’s known for standing on the side of issues that many Kentuckians would consider quite liberal. Berry also has the advantage of having known O’Hanlon, who died in 1998. He is her nephew by marriage.
“Ann was a liberal, if anybody ever was — too liberal, in fact, to approve entirely of me. I never heard her utter one racist word. Ann painted the Memorial Hall fresco in 1934, when it took some courage to declare so boldly that slaves had worked in Kentucky fields,” Berry wrote in his op-ed.
“Nobody would have objected if she had left them out. The uniform clothing and posture of the workers denotes an oppressive regimentation. The railroad, its cars filled with white passengers, seems to be borne upon the slaves’ bent backs — exactly as the railroad near Walden Pond, according to Henry David Thoreau, was built upon the backs of Irish laborers.”
It’s hard to imagine that removing the O’Hanlon fresco would improve race relations or add to anyone’s understanding of the awful legacy of slavery in Kentucky.
Memorial Hall was built in 1929, when UK had no black students or professors. It appears in countless photographs and promotional materials because of the beautiful clock tower that dominates the structure.
There’s a lot of history — some of it painful, some of it pleasing — in Memorial Hall. The building’s main auditorium was named in 2004 for Hopkinsville native Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, who was Kentucky’s governor when our state became the first in the South to approve civil rights legislation.
Perhaps there is room in Memorial Hall to expand on the story of Breathitt and other civil rights leaders. That would give context to the images of slaves painted by a 1930s white artist who was surely ahead of her time.
The Kentucky New Era