The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

University of Kentucky president talks about race, a mural and reconciliation

Detail from a mural inside Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky. The mural was shrouded on Nov. 25. (Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader)
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Eli Capilouto grew up in Montgomery, Ala., absorbing during his childhood seminal events of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. He remembers when his father showed him the scene of destruction after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed in 1956. He was in 10th grade when the voting rights march from Selma passed near his high school in 1965.

Now 66, Capilouto is witnessing a new wave of civil rights activism in his position as president of the University of Kentucky. So are many other college presidents. Students across the country are demanding steps to combat racial discrimination, diversify faculty and leadership and acknowledge that some campus traditions and symbols cause pain more than pride.

Capilouto took all of this into account when he decided to shroud a mural at Kentucky’s flagship university shortly before Thanksgiving. The 1934 fresco by the late Ann Rice O’Hanlon, a Kentucky graduate, depicts scenes from the state’s history, including images of slaves hunched in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers and a tomahawk-wielding Native American lurking near a white settler. The work, 38 feet wide and 11 feet tall, occupies a wall inside Memorial Hall, an iconic campus building honoring those who lost their lives in World War I.

[University of Kentucky shrouds a mural.]

When Capilouto took office in July 2011, he was aware that the mural had been a source of debate. His predecessor, Lee T. Todd Jr., had left it intact even though some student leaders called for its removal in 2006. Capilouto said he also sees value in the mural.

“It’s a fine piece of art,” he said this week in a visit to The Washington Post. “It should be preserved.” Moving it is difficult, he said, because the fresco is painted on plaster.

But doing nothing was not an option, Capilouto said. Not in a year when the University of Mississippi took down its state flag because it bears a prominent Confederate emblem. Not in a year when two top leaders of the University of Missouri stepped down amid complaints that they were doing too little to address incidents of racism and hate on campus.

[Ole Miss takes down its state flag.]

[Missouri president, chancellor resign over handling of racial incidents.]

“Our current climate, I think, brings a freshness of perspective,” Capilouto said. “And that’s good.”

Capilouto had met with about two dozen African American students on Nov. 12 to hear their concerns about financial aid, faculty hiring, student programming and other issues on the southern campus. The students also told him the mural was a problem. Capilouto said others reinforced that message the following week after he attended a screening of “Dear White People” in Memorial Hall. The film, a comedy, addresses racial tensions on a fictional and predominantly white campus.

After the film, students asked Capilouto, “Have you noticed this mural?”

Capilouto emphasized that he did not perceive the students to be making demands or ultimatums. But he said he sympathized with their views. The perspective on history at Kentucky in 1934 — 15 years before the university admitted its first African American student — is worlds away from the perspective of today. Capilouto said that when he hears the mural criticized as a romanticized depiction of the heinous institution of slavery, he bears in mind the sanitized history of the South he learned himself in his elementary civics textbooks in the 1950s.

“We decided to drape it,” Capilouto said. “Some may call that censorship. Our intent was to draw more attention to it.”

He acknowledged that it is challenging for a university to reexamine its history. Princeton is learning that as it now takes a fresh look at the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, in response to student demonstrators. President of Princeton before he was elected the 28th president of the United States, Wilson oversaw profound changes in the nation and was a major player on the world stage. He also was an advocate of racial segregation.

[Princeton president and protesters reach agreement.]

“How do you judge somebody in the context of their time, in your time, and do it fairly?” Capilouto said.

Capilouto came to Kentucky after serving as provost at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and dean of UAB’s School of Public Health. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1971 and a doctorate in health policy and management from Harvard University in 1991.

Kentucky, founded in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, has about 29,000 students. Of its undergraduates, 76 percent are white, 8 percent black or African American, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian American and 3 percent multiracial. Black students were not admitted until 1949.

The shrouding of the mural is temporary, Capilouto said, a move to buy time to allow debate on what to do about it. Faculty, students and staff are already engaging the question on social media and in other forums. Writer Wendell Berry, a famous Kentucky alumnus, who was related to O’Hanlon by marriage, also weighed in with a viewpoint skeptical of his alma mater.

“Though I willingly would do so if it were possible, I cannot understand the University of Kentucky’s decision to hide Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s fresco in Memorial Hall,” Berry wrote in an opinion piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The reason given is only that it shows people doing what they actually did. Black people did work in tobacco fields. Black musicians did play for white dancers. Indians did seriously threaten the settlers at Bryan’s Station.”

Peter Hurley, a sophomore from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, told The Post this week that he would go further than shrouding the mural. “I think it should be removed, personally,” he said. “I think it’s up there with, like, the Confederate flag in the South Carolina statehouse. I think it should be removed.”

Capilouto said the debate pleases him. “This is great,” he said. “To me, it’s an opportunity for reconciliation on a variety of fronts. … We’re going to be a better university.”

James Higdon contributed to this report from Lexington, Ky.