Photograph of Ann Rice O’Hanlon Mural by Tim Webb, courtesy University of Kentucky
When I was a kid in Lexington, KY, the town was known for two things: being the centre of the Bluegrass thoroughbred horse-breeding industry, and the University of Kentucky. When I was born in 1941 it was a small college town with a population of 45,000.
My father was a graduate of UK. (BSc in agriculture, since you ask. My Russian-Jewish grandfather was a farmer. We were not a typical southern family.) We were always conscious of the university; in fact, we felt it somehow belonged to us. Its basketball and football teams were often of national importance, and we duly went to all the home games. I hated my forced attendance at the basketball games even more than the football, despite the football being outside in sometimes unpleasantly cold temperatures. On the other hand, there were also musical events at UK, which were much more to my taste. There was, for example, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, and there were chamber music concerts and even some opera – I remember a scratch Carmen.
Some of these took place at Memorial Hall – those memorialised being the dead of World War I – completed in 1929, and in the Greek Revival style common to the town, with the addition of a clock tower and steeple. We were often at events in Memorial Hall: I think I even recall taking part in a children’s play there.
In its lobby is a big fresco. Did we ever stop and really look at it? I’m not sure, for it depicted the history of the town and the Bluegrass region of Central KY, from the time of the first 18th century settlers through the 19th century. It was painted by a local woman, Ann Rice O’Hanlon, with a grant from the Works Progress Administration – FDR’s WPA – and its completion took many months. It is a rarity, because of its size and scale, one of the few in the entire country.
On its bottom level (of three), left, it depicts a procession of settlers, wife, two children riding the family horse, the family cow and dog, led by a buckskin-clad man wearing a racoon skin cap with its tail, who we kids always assumed was local hero Daniel Boone (1734-1820). In front of him in the same panel is a tomahawk-wielding, but nearly naked Native American (we, of course, called him an “Indian.”)
The mural progresses through the communal building of log cabins to the coming of the railroads, the building of the downtown commercial district, to what I interpret as the yearling horse sales, the depiction of Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace and ends with what looks to me like the first buildings of the new university. On the way, of course, it depicts slavery. In the very centre of the image are four African Americans, bent-over, planting a crop – probably tobacco. (That was certainly our family’s cash crop.) A couple of panels to the left of this is one showing some black musicians playing, as white couples dance. The whole mural is done in a charming, primitive style.
As we children made our way through the foyer time after time, I don’t expect we gave it a second glance. It was so familiar. It was, after all, our own history – yes, even the history of the grandchild of a Russian Jewish farmer. We knew all about Daniel Boone, and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Henry Clay’s estate, Ashland, and General John Hunt Morgan’s Georgian (Federal Period) house with a front door large enough for him to ride his horse through it. It was on Gratz Square, the (still–preserved) Georgian square named for Benjamin Gratz, the Jew from Philadelphia who settled in Lexington, and whose daughter, Rebecca, was the original of the character in Ivanhoe. And we knew about slavery.
In the movies (and Lexington is featured in plenty of them, from the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races to Seabiscuit) we see miles and miles of white rail fences, the emblem of the Lexington thoroughbred stud farms. But our family farms, like many other properties, were criss-crossed with limestone, dry-stone walls – exactly like the ones I can see out of my window, as I am writing this in our house near the Cotswolds. In Lexington we called these “slave walls.” I think the reason is that it was obvious that it required a special, and ancient technique to shape the flat stones and place then together to make a sturdy wall without using mortar. We called them slave walls, mostly, I think, to mark their relative antiquity. But even as children, we knew Lexington had a history of slavery. While we were proud to have slave walls, the history of slavery itself was neither a matter of pride or of shame. It was simply part of our own history.
I felt shame – then anger – when I learned that, a few weeks ago, UK President Eli Capiluto caved in to the political correctness lobby and covered the mural with a white cloth. Of course there are some silly students, black and white, who object to the fresco, claiming that the detail that some of the black people depicted appear to be happy is a denial of historical facts.
Whose historical facts? I was the second generation born there, the third (and there was also a fourth) to live there. They’re my historical facts, at least as much as any of the protesting students. I concur entirely with Kentucky’s greatest living writer, Wendell Berry, who wrote in the local Lexington Herald-Leader on 30 November:
The president further objects to the fresco on the ground that it reminds “one black student … that his ancestors were slaves.” That statement has at least two arresting implications: (1) that black students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slaves, and (2) that white students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slave owners. Do students, then, study history at our “flagship university” in order to forget it?
If forgetting history is now the purpose of higher education, I may be taking some risk by reminding the flagship censors of the persecution of Boris Pasternak by Soviet officials when Dr. Zhivago was published in the West and awarded the Nobel Prize. I will go further into danger and remind them also that Thomas Merton wrote a brilliant appreciation of that novel and its author. Among much else of value Merton said this: “It is characteristic of the singular logic of Stalinist-Marxism that when it incorrectly diagnoses some phenomenon as ‘political,’ it corrects the error by forcing the thing to become political.”
Shame on President Capiluto. Shame on the history-destroying students who bring shame on the University of Kentucky.