UK rejects 'political correctness,' restores historic mural

The University of Kentucky has reversed its decision to shroud a historic mural depicting scenes of African Americans and Native Americans that some students found "unsettling."

President Eli Capilouto announced via blog post Thursday that the mural will once again be displayed after an appointed panel provided a series of recommendations for providing “context” and “alternative perspectives” to the mural, which was painted in the 1930’s to help commemorate the sacrifices of soldiers in World War I as part of the Memorial Hall building.

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Although Capilouto believes that the mural,"told a story through a talented artist’s eyes within the context of her time,” he asserts that "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 provide that additional context, the university will be adding "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."

The expanded display will also feature "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," as well as new programming options, including “discussions, classes, and events that focus on issues of race and identity from many perspectives.”

The painting aroused controversy last year due to its depictions of African Americans working in tobacco fields, black musicians performing for a group Caucasians, and a Native American holding a tomahawk. The fresco was painted in 1934 by Ann Rice O’Hanlon, a UK graduate, and has been cited as one of the best examples of work paid for by the Depression-era Public Works of Art program.

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Wendell Berry, a 2010 National Humanities Medal winner, criticized the university for censoring history with an op-ed in The Lexington Herald-Leader following the initial decision to cover up the mural.

“Perhaps President Capilouto is not an art critic or a historian, and so his defamations should be excused as the misshapen eloquence of overcooked political correctness,” Berry wrote. “The fresco in Memorial Hall was, in its origin and in itself, not political. Now, by the singular logic of the university’s official righteousness, it has been forced to become political.”

Despite the extensive criticism of UK for censoring the painting, some students are nonetheless displeased with the decision to put the mural back on display.

Erica Littlejohn, a Ph.D. student in neurophysiology, told Inside Higher Ed that many African American students are still concerned about the mural, and do not want to see it on display even with additional historical context. According to Littlejohn, the mural issue was just one of many that students included in an ultimatum issued to the administration last fall, but became the focal point of attention while “more important” issues went unaddressed.

“The mural was low-hanging fruit,” she complained, “and now they are undoing something they did last fall.”

Campus Reform reached out the the University of Kentucky for comment, but was merely directed back to the President’s blog post.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AutumnDawnPrice