UK plans to remove controversial mural from Memorial Hall

The University of Kentucky plans to renovate Memorial Hall and remove the mural that sparked a lawsuit and protests, President Eli Capilouto said Tuesday.

Studies of the building have shown that the mural, which depicts Black workers who are possibly slaves planting tobacco, can be removed and relocated, Capilouto said in a press release and video announcement to address efforts the university is making after a former student reportedly attacked and used racial slurs towards another UK student.

The university has previously said moving the mural was not possible because it’s embedded into a load-bearing wall.

More than a year ago, a group from UK began visiting other campuses to “examine what other institutions do more closely in terms of dedicated spaces for diversity,” Capilouto said in an email Tuesday. Part of that includes the renovations of Memorial Hall, which were approved by the board of trustees in June.

“Following the removal and relocation of a controversial mural, (Memorial Hall) will be transformed as a space, particularly for our students, to celebrate diversity and inclusion on our campus,” Capilouto said. “For many, Memorial Hall is an iconic building in the heart of our campus. For many others, it is a space where a mural, in place since the 1930s, depicts in a distorted fashion the way enslaved people and other marginalized peoples were treated in Kentucky.”

UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said there is not a specific timeline for the mural removal because of court-ordered mediation with Kentucky poet Wendell Berry. Berry sued the university to stop the removal of the mural in 2020.

“The next step will be to impanel a committee to make recommendations regarding design and programming elements of the reimagined space,” Blanton said. “A group spent time more than a year ago studying similar initiatives at other institutions, such as Florida and Florida State. Now, we will work to tailor an initiative to meet the needs and our campus and our goals as a diverse and inclusive community.”

The controversial mural in Memorial Hall shows scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk. Mark Cornelison

Capilouto originally announced plans to remove the mural in 2020, following the death of George Floyd and nationwide social justice protests, after years of heated debate around the mural. The lawsuit stopped the removal effort, however. Black student groups had previously demanded the removal of the mural, which was originally created in 1934 by Ann Rice O’Hanlon.

After calls for the mural’s removal, the university covered the mural with a sheet. In 2017, a plaque which mentions the historical context of the mural was added and the sheet was removed. In early 2018, artist Karyn Olivier created a work of art for the building designed to further contextualize the mural.

But the mural was covered again by a sheet after protests in which students — calling for more on-campus opportunities for Black students and the removal of the mural — occupied the main campus administrative building for a night in April 2019. Classes were removed from Memorial Hall in 2019, and have not been held there since.

UK covered up this mural inside Memorial Hall last year after it was called racially offensive. Mark Cornelison

Racist attack on campus

Earlier this month, former UK student Sophia Rosing was arrested after she reportedly physically assaulted and spouted racist slurs at a Black student desk clerk in Boyd Hall. After police arrived, Rosing continued using the slur and bit a police officer, according to police records.

Rosing was banned from campus and will not be eligible to re-enroll, Capilouto said in an email on Nov. 9. She was charged with first and second offenses of public intoxication, third-degree assault of a police officer, fourth-degree assault and second-degree disorderly conduct, according to the Fayette County Detention Center website.

On Nov. 15, she waived her preliminary hearing, meaning her case will now go before a Fayette County grand jury.

In his email Tuesday, Capilouto said UK is increasing its commitment to mental health support for students, including virtual counseling options and a partnership with Talkspace, which provides virtual therapy sessions. The university also hopes to have “more on-campus clinicians of color in place during Spring 2023,” he said.

Every college has a DEI officer to “advance conversations, outcomes-based strategies and discipline-focused initiatives about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Capilouto said. The university is now focusing on making sure diversity, equity and inclusion officers are more visible and accessible within colleges, with plans to have more uniform structures around DEI officers in place by February.

“We want to be a place where everyone feels like they are safe and belong,” Capilouto said. “That requires us to confront challenges and barriers to being that community. It will require the courage to talk with each other and understand both where we are making progress, but also where we have continued to fall short.”

Monica Kast covers higher education for the Herald-Leader and Previously, she covered higher education in Tennessee for the Knoxville News Sentinel. She is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Western Kentucky University.
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