Suit to prevent removal of controversial Kentucky mural dismissed by judge

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by award-winning writer Wendell Berry and his wife to stop the University of Kentucky from removing a mural that has been the object of protests for its depictions of Black people and Native Americans. But the ruling also protects the artwork.

The lawsuit was filed in 2020 after Eli Capilouto, the university president, announced that the mural would be coming down.

Painted in the 1930s by Ann Rice O’Hanlon, the fresco mural shows the history of Lexington in a series of scenes, including Black men and women planting tobacco and a Native American man holding a tomahawk. There have been efforts to remove the mural since at least 2006.

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The order filed Monday says the Berrys don’t have legal standing to bring the lawsuit, but it also notes the historical significance of the artwork and said removing it would be an “insult” to Kentucky residents.

“The O’Hanlon Mural does not glorify the abhorrent practice of slavery or the taking of Native American territory. But rather is a concise depiction of what Ms. O’Hanlon was instructed to create — a history of Kentucky from 1792 through the 1920s,” the ruling stated.

Photo of one of the buildings of the University of Kentucky, a public university in Lexington, Kentucky, USA. (iStock)

Since removing the mural would result in its destruction as it is painted directly on plaster, the ruling ordered the university to maintain the status quo of the mural, pending any appeals in the case.

“We have stated that the university’s intent is to maintain and move the mural. That continues to be our position. We are pleased that the judge dismissed the case,” spokesperson Jay Blanton told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Tanya Berry told the newspaper that she hadn’t yet read the decision, but keeping the mural in place was “what we wanted.” The lawsuit says that she is a maternal niece of O’Hanlon and her oldest living heir.

“We’re delighted that the fresco will stay in place, because it would destroy it to take it down,” she said.

Wendell Berry is renowned for his poetry, novels and essays on sustainable agriculture and other subjects. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by then-President Barack Obama in 2011.

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