For years, there has been a simmering debate over what to do with a New Deal-era mural at the University of Kentucky that students have denounced as a racist sanitizing of history and a painful reminder of slavery in a public setting.
The wall-length mural, a 1934 fresco by Ann Rice O’Hanlon, is covered with vignettes that are intended to illustrate Kentucky’s history. At the center of the mural is an image of enslaved people tending to tobacco plants, and at the bottom, there is a Native American man holding a tomahawk and peering out from behind a tree at a white woman as if poised for attack.
Since 2015, university administrators have tried to find a resolution that doesn’t involve removing the mural. But last month, as many predominantly white institutions in the United States were being forced to answer for their history of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, decided that it was time for the mural to come down.
It’s a familiar conflict at a time of intense conversations about racial injustice across the country. Some want to see the mural removed, asserting that its depiction of violence against Black people has no place in a space where students attend class or celebratory events, while others counter that hiding it would amount to artistic censorship and an obscuring of the state’s history of slavery and racism.
Now, Wendell Berry — the writer, farmer and longtime Kentuckian — is suing the university over its decision to remove the mural, arguing that because it was created through a government program, it is owned by the people of Kentucky and cannot be removed by the university. (Mr. Berry knew the artist of the mural through his wife, who is a niece of Ms. O’Hanlon. Mr. Berry’s wife, Tanya Berry, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.)
Mr. Berry said that they are also trying to prevent the potential removal of another work, one by a Black artist, Karyn Olivier, that was commissioned by the university and installed in the same campus building in 2018 in response to the mural. Ms. Olivier’s work, called “Witness,” reproduces the likenesses of the Black and Native American people in the mural and positions them on a dome covered with gold leaf so they appear to be floating like celestial beings. The dome is in the vestibule of the building just in front of the room where the mural covers the wall.
But if the university follows through with removing the mural, Ms. Olivier said, she would like her work to come down too.
“My work is dependent on that history,” Ms. Olivier said in an interview. She said the decision to “censor” the 1934 mural would amount to censorship of her own work.
At the center of the Berrys’ lawsuit is the argument that the mural is held in trust by the university, on behalf of the public, and that university officials are not allowed to take an action that is counter to the original intent of the work. Anti-censorship advocates are playing close attention and say that what happens here could influence conversations in cities around the country about contested murals.
“We’re afraid that the University of Kentucky may set off a domino effect,” said Christopher Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which is supporting Ms. Olivier’s effort to preserve her work.
In a statement responding to the lawsuit, a spokesman for the University of Kentucky, Jay Blanton, said that moving art is “not erasing history.”
“It is, rather, creating context to further dialogue as well as space for healing,” he said.
As monuments honoring the Confederacy and white political leaders with racist pasts have drawn calls for removal in recent years, so have New Deal-era murals.
The controversy in Lexington, Ky., is similar to one at a San Francisco high school, where a series of murals depicting the life of George Washington upset students and parents because they showed scenes of slaves at work in the fields and barns of Washington’s Mount Vernon and, in one, Washington pointing westward over the dead body of a Native American man. In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to conceal, but not destroy, the Depression-era murals; the high school’s alumni association later sued, and there has not yet been a final conclusion in the legal battle.
Ms. O’Hanlon’s mural was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project, an early New Deal program during President Roosevelt’s administration that sought to put unemployed artists to work by asking them to create art for public buildings. The roughly 40-foot mural at the University of Kentucky sprawls across a wall in a building, Memorial Hall, which is used for classes, lectures and other public events.
The mural is meant to show the history of the state, from the cabin-building of white settlers at the bottom of the fresco up to the theatergoing and carriage-riding Kentuckians at the top. At the center of the mural, four enslaved people bend over tobacco plants. Above them, a group of Black people stand near the train, segregated from the white people nearby. To the left of them, Black people play a guitar, harmonica and banjo for dancing white men and women.
In 2015, students of color at the University of Kentucky raised objections to the mural directly with the university’s president, Eli Capilouto, and the university responded by covering up the fresco with white cloth while they considered what to do in the longer term.
Mr. Capilouto wrote at the time that he had been moved by accounts from Black students who resented the mural on a very personal level.
“One African-American student recently told me that each time he walks into class at Memorial Hall he looks at the Black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and receives the terrible reminder that his ancestors were enslaved, subjugated by his fellow humans,” he wrote. “Worse still, the mural provides a sanitized image of that history.”
In 2016, the university announced that it would uncover the mural but would surround it “with other works of art from a variety of perspectives that provide a larger narrative of our history.” The university selected a proposal from Ms. Olivier, and the artwork was installed in 2018, covering the inside of the dome at the entry of Memorial Hall. It puts the Black and Native figures from Ms. O’Hanlon’s mural in a different context: the people at the train station, the musicians, the people working the field, all floating in the dome’s sparkling gold background, which Ms. Olivier chose as a gesture to the gold leaf seen in churches and sacred paintings.
Ms. Olivier’s work also includes portraits of figures from Kentucky’s history, including Georgia Davis Powers, the first Black person to serve in the State Senate, and Charlotte Dupuy, an enslaved woman who filed a lawsuit against her master, Henry Clay, who was then the secretary of state, seeking freedom. And around the dome’s base, there’s a quotation from Frederick Douglass: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
Still, students continued to object to the 1934 mural, and last year, students with the Black Student Advisory Council staged a sit-in at a campus building, demanding that the mural be taken down.
“It’s not something that the University of Kentucky’s students are willing to put up with anymore,” said Tsage Douglas, then the president of the advisory council, to the university president at the time, according to an article in the student-run newspaper.
Ms. Douglas, who was also the president of the Black Student Union, argued in an op-ed in the newspaper last year that the mural still needed to go. She wrote, “Taking down and completely removing the mural is not with the purpose of destroying art or covering up necessary conversations, but with the intent of giving Black students room to heal.”
Now that the university has decided to take down the 1934 mural, Ms. Olivier feels as if her own artwork is being “hung out to dry.” She said that she heard about the plan to remove the work just as the rest of the public did, without any heads-up from the university.
Ms. Olivier said that she saw her work as the beginning of a concerted effort to use the art in Memorial Hall as a site of learning, a place for panel discussions and seminars and conversations about the history depicted in the 1934 mural. But she said that the university hasn’t put enough resources into those endeavors, and she argues that it is too soon to retreat from that original plan.
But in his announcement about the removal of the mural, Mr. Capilouto said that the university’s current efforts to ease the controversy without removing the mural have been a “roadblock to reconciliation.”
“The spaces we have created for dialogue, and the work we have commissioned to expand conversation and contextualize art, haven’t worked, frankly,” he wrote.
Since the fate of the mural was put in question in 2015, Mr. Berry, who attended the University of Kentucky in the 1950s, has spoken publicly about the situation and advocated for the mural to remain uncovered. He interprets the depiction of the enslaved people not as romanticized but as showing the “oppressive regimentation” of their lives, writing once that “the railroad, its cars filled with white passengers, seems to be borne upon the slaves’ bent backs.”
Mr. Berry, 85, said that he decided to file a lawsuit because he “didn’t know any other way to go” after the university abruptly announced that it would remove the mural. He also said he fears that trying to remove the artwork would either ruin it or be unnecessarily expensive.
The lawsuit, filed on Monday in a Circuit Court in Frankfort, Ky., asks the court to prevent the university from removing the mural or Ms. Olivier’s accompanying piece.
“I don’t think that the president has the right to destroy any part of the commonwealth,” Mr. Berry said. “How soon do we get to the point where we just don’t want to have a past at all?”