UK should not paper over painful past

It’s great that President Eli Capilouto asked black students about their concerns and wants to respond in a tangible way.

But, as the University of Kentucky hides a work of art, we would like to offer an alternative view of the Memorial Hall fresco, painted during the Depression by UK graduate Ann Rice O’Hanlon.

Capilouto says a black student told him that seeing the mural’s depiction of black men and women bent and toiling in a tobacco field is a painful reminder that his ancestors were enslaved. Also, Capilouto says the mural presents a “sanitized image” of slavery.

But in O’Hanlon’s painting, Kentucky’s progress and wealth (in the form of handsome brick buildings and a steam engine) are built squarely on the backs of black laborers.

Not just in Kentucky, but across the United States, vast amounts of wealth were created by enslaved people who never shared in the profits of their own labor. This injustice gave rise to a movement seeking economic reparations for slavery. A painful reminder, yes, but hardly sanitized or something a university should paper over.

Capilouto points out that UK had no black students or faculty and that the educational value of diversity had yet to be recognized in 1934 when O’Hanlon and her husband, sculptor Dick O’Hanlon, who had apprenticed under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, created the fresco. True enough. Two years later, Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler welcomed the now controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis into the Capitol Rotunda, which says something about the state of racial sensitivity at the time.

All of that makes Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s mural more remarkable because it celebrated diversity, weaving black Kentuckians into the state’s life. The completed mural stood as a daily reminder to students and faculty of the injustice embodied in their all-white campus.

O’Hanlon later remembered that no one, including the faculty, showed much interest during the eight months she worked, with the exception of UK’s black janitors who would watch her paint at night and boosted her spirits by bringing her “apples or Coca-Colas.” She went on to some fame as an artist and teacher in California.

In the mural, black musicians play an African instrument, the banjo, for white dancers, which could be viewed as a stereotype – or as a tribute to the seminal contributions of black culture to American arts.

Work is a recurring theme. In one of the first scenes, a white woman bends under a yoke to carry water. Logs are hefted; butter churned. This celebration of labor captures the spirit of the New Deal, which spawned the mural as a Public Works of Art Project, one of the federal programs that put Americans back to work after the economy collapsed.

Some may think it hypocritical of us to defend a mural that some young black Kentuckians find hurtful, while supporting the removal of Davis’ statue from the Rotunda. The Rotunda is the center of Kentucky’s government, visited by thousands of students, a place that should symbolize what we want our state to be.

The Davis statue really was an attempt to sanitize ugly history and glorify one of slavery’s most prominent defenders. The Memorial Hall mural depicts a more honest history (including Native Americans who defended their homeland but didn’t last long against the European settlers.)

Others will find more in O’Hanlon’s work to think about, criticize and praise – if, as Capilouto suggests, the situation is used as a “learning opportunity.” A white drape is now concealing the mural while Capilouto seeks a resolution “respectful of every perspective.” Relocation is not an option because the 40-foot-long mural is painted into the plaster.

Like much of society, UK has yet to shed vestiges of a racial history that is less than proud. Perhaps talking about the mural can help give rise to deeper, more systemic changes that will make UK more open and welcoming to all. Such changes are more challenging than throwing a cover over a painting.