Reflections on the O’Hanlon Mural

Artwork & Illustrations, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Holly Eberle

What is happening?

A row of three empty picture frames hanging on a white wall

There is a mural at the University of Kentucky that was done in 1934 by Ann Rice O’Hanlon. This mural depicts both Black people and Native American people in derogatory, racist ways including slavery. This piece was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is meant to show the history of the state. 

In 2015, a group of students requested that the university president do something about the O’Hanlon mural. This started a conversation at the school that by 2017 resulted in the university coming up with the solution to add supplemental pieces to provide a larger narrative to Kentucky’s history. 

That is where Karyn Olivier comes in. Olivier created a response to the O’Hanlon mural: titled “Witness,” Olivier’s mural was installed in 2018 in the rotunda that visitors walk through before viewing the problematic mural. She used the images of Native American people and Black people from O’Hanlon’s mural and paired them with a Frederick Douglass quote: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” Olivier also featured Georgia Davis Powers, Charlotte Dupuy, and Henry Clay in “Witness.” 

This issue has been simmering at the school for years now but the police murder of George Floyd has jogged the issue back into the forefront of university discussion. This summer it has been decided that the O’Hanlon mural should come down. However, Wendall Berry, a friend of Ann Rice O’Hanlon, is now suing the University of Kentucky for its decision. He feels that since the mural was funded by a government program, it is owned by the people of Kentucky and the university has no right to remove it.

In light of the university’s decision to remove the O’Hanlon mural, Karyn Olivier has requested that her artwork also be removed. Her work is dependent on the history depicted in O’Hanlon’s mural. Olivier had originally hoped her mural would make viewers ask themselves, “What does it say about who I am as a citizen of the world?” 

A librarian’s thoughts

I am not an academic librarian. I am a children’s public librarian. While I did work at my university’s library for one year as an undergraduate, I do not think that counts. That being acknowledged, this situation stands apart from many other examples involving old-timey racist artwork. There is an intentional response piece right above it by a Black female artist. Taking away the context for her art alters her intention and therefore the viewer’s experience. This is no swift and easy decision.

The University of Kentucky was created in 1865 thanks to the Morrill Land-Grant Act, a bit of legislation steeped in Civil War politics. The university did not admit Black undergraduate students until 1954. For context, the first African American man to graduate with a bachelor’s degree was Alexander Lucius Twilight in 1823. Granted, he went to Middlebury College up in Vermont, but still, that’s over a hundred years before Kentucky would have admitted him. For even more context, African American men could save the free world from Nazis in World War II but not get a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky. 

The university did not inform Olivier that they were planning on taking down the O’Hanlon mural, despite commissioning artwork from her specifically to respond to that mural. This seems disrespectful to me. It almost feels like a pattern at this point. It also seems like it is pretty hard to exist in the University of Kentucky at all without acknowledging its problematic history, which is just a slice of our country’s history. Removing Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s 1934 mural will not remove that history but it will censor art. What does it say about who we are as citizens of the world?

I have noticed that people tend to get defensive and uncomfortable when properly accused of censorship. No one wants to be a censor but the capacity is inside all of us. O’Hanlon and Olivier’s art is now an interrelated work. Taking away one piece because that part makes some people feel uncomfortable feels a lot like keeping a book in the curriculum while physically covering up certain offending images on select pages. In many cases, we politely dance around the fact that this behavior is censorship, however it is exactly that.

Holly Eberle

Holly Eberle is the Youth Technology Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in northern Illinois and a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. Her passion for the intellectual freedom rights of youth began in kindergarten when her elementary school library pulled the Goosebumps series off the shelves. She also is interested in the technological realm of intellectual freedom and privacy issues. Outside of the library she is a metalhead and you may follow her on Instagram @doom_metal_librarian.

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