Letter to the Editor: Fresco provides honest view of early Kentucky

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Thank you for your article in the Kentucky Kernel about the O’Hanlon fresco in Memorial Hall. You treated the subject fairly and intelligently, and I believe that, along with Wendell Berry’s informative letter, you influenced UK to change its stance on covering the fresco.

My experience with this fresco is long term (I was at UK from 1958 to 1959 and returned to Lexington in 1968 where I remain). I was only vaguely aware of the fresco until the early 1980s, when, walking to lunch at Alfalfa’s, my husband, daughter and I stopped to find out what was going on at Memorial Hall. Someone told us that the artist who painted the fresco was speaking, and that she was a lively woman with ties to Diego Rivera.

We went in, the talk was in the lobby, and Ann O’Hanlon told how, in the 1930s,  her husband would get up before dawn, apply enough fresh plaster for a day’s worth of painting, and she would then come in and paint for that day.

What was most interesting was this woman’s story about the subject material. She pointed out the early settlers and the Indians at the bottom and sides of the fresco and then to the center of the piece, which she said depicted the development of Central Kentucky.

She declared (pretty strongly) that she needed to start with the black people, bent at the waist and setting tobacco plants. I clearly remember her saying, “Lexington, Kentucky, was built on the backs of black slaves and without them there would have been no financial prosperity for this region.” At this point, she moved to the black people clustered behind the locomotive, saying, “The energy of these people was what drove the development of Central Kentucky but they did not prosper from it themselves. They are here to indicate that they were the energy that drove the development train.”

She then stopped and said that she had been asked to come and “modify” the fresco, to remove its racist qualities. And then she became very angry and said, “I will not remove any of it. I am sorry that black people may be offended, but I felt I had to depict this basic truth about the development of this region — it was the work of black people who made white people prosper.”

Perhaps the strident feelings of Ann O’Hanlon do not come through strongly to a casual viewer of her fresco, or perhaps those feelings are not what today’s students want to consider when they look at it. But, for those of us who were at Memorial Hall that spring day, we left convinced that we had our own leftist, radical view of Central Kentucky history right here on campus, that we could visit when we wanted to be inspired to do the right thing. In my opinion, UK has now done the right thing by accepting, and exalting, this proud product of an earlier, more honest account of Lexington and Kentucky history.

Sincerely,

Joyce Evans, UK Department of Biomedical Engineering.

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