UK: Famed Kentucky writer must butt out of decision on mural stirring racial conflict

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The University of Kentucky argues renowned Kentucky poet Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, have no standing and can’t intervene in its decision to remove a mural denounced by Black students.

In its move to dismiss a lawsuit, UK says that the mural in Memorial Hall is not part of a “public trust,” as the Berrys have argued, but rather a piece of government speech, according to court records. The university is entitled to make decisions about the messages it conveys, and UK argues that includes the mural.

Even if the case is thrown out in Franklin County court next month, the celebrated novelist isn’t likely to give up, according to Scott White, the attorney representing the couple. No matter who wins, an appeal is likely, extending the battle, he said.

The university has said it wants to remove the mural because it depicts enslaved people and because of how those depictions impact Black students. The Berrys argue that the artist who made the mural, Tanya Berry’s maternal aunt, Ann Rice O’Hanlon, had meant to show that Black people were central to building the region.

UK doesn’t typically comment on legal action, but in its response to the lawsuit, it argues that the mural’s message undermines the university’s efforts to bring equality and inclusion to the campus. The university also states in its filings that it has no intention to destroy the mural, just to move it.

The Berrys have previously argued in their lawsuit that because of how the mural, a fresco on plaster, was made, it would likely crumble if moved.

The mural, painted in the 1930s, shows images representing the region’s history. At the center of the painting is an image of four Black people working in a field with a railroad on their backs. Tanya Berry, has argued that her aunt was trying to show that “it’s on their backs that the whole of society was built.”

But Black students have argued for years that the mural is hurtful and traumatic and that it shouldn’t be in the campus building that houses classes and events.

The university has grappled with what to do since a group of Black students called for its removal in 2015. Since then, the mural has been covered and then uncovered, and an art piece was commissioned in 2018 to respond to it. In 2020, UK President Eli Capilouto announced it would be removed.

The Berrys then filed the lawsuit a year ago to halt the mural’s removal. Karyn Olivier, the artist who was commissioned by the university to create the contextualizing piece in 2018, wrote a letter against taking the mural down.

In his letter announcing the planned removal of the mural amid the racial reckoning that followed police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Capilouto recalled a conversation with a student who told him that every time he went to class in Memorial Hall, he had to see the mural and reckon with the fact his ancestors had been enslaved.

“They were chattel; brutalized as disposable property, even though in their time, they were regarded as essential to the economy’s progress,” Capilouto wrote in the letter. “The art, to this student, sought to glorify and sanitize that fact. And he was speaking for many others over many years, a point made clear again to me recently as we began conversations with our student leaders on how to move forward during this fraught time. The mural once again was a symbol, not of a state’s evolution, but of our unwillingness to recognize their experiences as members of our community.”

Tsage Douglas, who was chairwoman of UK’s Black Student Advisory Council at the time of the announcement, wrote her own op-ed saying, “Addressing our histories and exposing our realities too often comes at the price of Black trauma, Black community setbacks, and the death of Black people. This does not have to happen, and it will stop happening on this campus, our campus.”

Douglas argued that Memorial Hall, which is used for classes and “many celebratory events,” can’t be a place for celebration or healing while the mural carries trauma for students.

In Olivier’s open letter to the community arguing against the removal of the mural, she acknowledged the “problematic” nature of the mural but argued that with the addition of her own piece, “Witness,” the space could bring “discourse, for new questions, reinvestigations.”

Scott White, the attorney representing the Berrys, said that the university has maintained its position throughout the year-long legal back and forth.

White said he’s confused by Capilouto’s stance after the university spent $30,000 to commission Olivier’s art piece.

“World renowned artist Karen Oliver ... came up with a remarkable piece of art to dialogue with this piece that would’ve been a great platform for dealing with the very issues that need to be dealt with at UK and he just unilaterally decides to turn his back to it,” White said.

In the year since Capilouto announced the mural’s planned removal, the area with the mural has been closed to the public. Meanwhile, the legal fight continues after it was sent to federal court and then back to state court. A hearing on UK’s efforts to dismiss the case is scheduled for July 21.