UK to close Memorial Hall to required classes in spring. Will it end mural controversy?

UK student protesters speak with President Capilouto on demands

Over 100 University of Kentucky students with the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs Campaign met with Uk President Eli Capilouto on a number of issues and demands ranging from food insecurity to racism on campus.
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Over 100 University of Kentucky students with the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs Campaign met with Uk President Eli Capilouto on a number of issues and demands ranging from food insecurity to racism on campus.

The University of Kentucky is going to close Memorial Hall to any required classes starting next spring, ensuring that students who are offended by the building’s central mural that depicts early Kentucky history with black and Native American stereotypes are no longer forced to see it.

The 1930s artwork by Ann Rice O’Hanlon is currently shrouded for the second time in four years because of student demands last spring that ended in an occupation of the Main Building. This move finds a much-needed compromise between two conflicting camps, one that demanded the mural’s removal and the other that opposed destruction of the historic fresco, commissioned by the Public Works Administration, that is painted into the walls.

Spokesman Jay Blanton said large lecture classes in anatomy, psychology and sociology were already planned for the fall semester, but they will be moved for spring. Groups that choose to use Memorial Hall will be able to.

Tsage Douglas, a UK student who helped organize the spring protest, said she was glad that UK was moving ahead with the action plan the Black Student Advisory Council presented, which included more diverse faculty and better financial support for black students.

“We’re happy with the progress.,” she said.

More dialogue

Blanton said the mural will be uncovered again, but it’s not clear what the building will become. It was originally built in 1929 as a monument to those killed in World War I.

“Ultimately, right now President Capilouto wants more dialogue and to involve more people about how do we further contextualize the space,” Blanton said.

One idea that’s floated around is turning Memorial Hall a space dedicated to issues of race and reconciliation. This year, the school is celebrating the 70th anniversary of desegregation, but like many Southern schools, the path between Lyman T. Johnson’s enrollment in 1949 and today has been far from smooth for students of color.

UK first shrouded the mural in response to student protests in 2015. After a task force met for a year, the mural was uncovered, and in 2018 more context was added by artist Karyn Olivier, who turned the foyer’s dome into a gold-leaf firmament featuring figures from O’Hanlon’s mural and other people from Kentucky’s black history.

After the spring protests, when students once again demanded the mural be covered or removed and complained that Olivier’s work didn’t ease the pain caused by the mural, Olivier wrote a letter to the community, in which she described herself as a “the black immigrant female gay artist who created an artwork last summer in Memorial Hall whose goal was to face, challenge, question and instigate a dialogue with Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s extremely problematic mural.

“We must dissect and critique our American histories, shed light on what’s hidden/buried, and expose this complicated landscape for all to investigate and interrogate,” she wrote. “Our complex histories need to be wrestled with, even when they can’t be resolved.”

Stuart Horodner, director of the UK Art Museum, who helped with Olivier’s commission, called the move “significant.”

He pointed out that the mural “tries to tell several stories about the origins of the Commonwealth. It is an ambitious, historical, and educational asset. It is also problematic and divisive. But it should be looked at and thought about, and used.

“I can imagine, with thoughtful planning and programming, that Memorial Hall becomes a destination for a committed and inclusive examination of race, representation, memory, and progress in contemporary Lexington and America,” Horodner said.

He thinks the space would be perfect for a mix of lectures, film screenings, performances, panel discussions and concerts.

“Collaborative programming between the UK Art Museum, the Gaines Center for the Humanities, the MLK Center, Office of LGBTQ* Resources, Department of Music, Department of Theatre & Dance, and many others would be fantastic,” he said. “Imagine a talk about WPA era murals in America one month, a symposium on Toni Morrison another, and so on. The possibilities are endless.”

Painful struggles

Whatever UK decides, it must do more to educate all students about racial issues in UK’s past and present, including representation and funding.

UK’s decision coincides with the release of a new documentary by Eastern Kentucky University professor John Fitch called “Painted in Stone: The Kentucky Mural.” Fitch delves into the history between 1949 and 2019, including the often painful struggles that black students faced at UK, the mostly white state flagship in a mostly white state. (Long before the mural, black students had to fight to end the singing of the song “Dixie” at football games.)

In the documentary, Tsage Douglas points out that UK does plenty of events to make black students feel more comfortable there but “what needs to happen is the university targeting white students, saying please interact with your African American peers, please become more aware of diversity, become more aware of social justice.”

She’s right. The mural has become a messy and enduring symbol of an unsavory history that more white students need to understand in support of their black classmates. If you think, as many white people do, that oppression against black people ended in 1865, then you probably don’t understand what these students are upset about. A new space where programming is dedicated to those issues is both necessary and welcome. Memorial Hall is UK’s totem, inscribed into its logo, and it shouldn’t be an ordinary classroom that students are required to troop through, but neither should it be sanitized from the harsh realities that colleges are there to teach.

Painted in Stone: The Kentucky Mural will be screened on Sept. 24 at EKU’s O’Donnell Auditorium in the Whitlock Building at 6:30 p.m. It will be screened in Lexington on Sept. 26 at the Lexington Public Library’s Central Branch at 7 p.m. Both screenings are free and open to the public.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.