Three words: “I Can’t Breathe.” These words became a call for action after America witnessed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This heinous act caused massive outrage and lit the spark to dismantle the systemic racism against the Black community. The University of Kentucky has recently taken action to remove the controversial mural in Memorial Hall—a much needed step in the right direction.
Ann O’Hanlon created the mural in 1934 to depict the history of Kentucky. The artist’s intent was to show that our industrialization only occurred due to the enslavement of African Americans and Native Americans. In fact, O’Hanlon painted four enslaved African Americans in the center of her mural and placed railroad tracks on their backs to convey this point.
Fast forward several years. Everyone has learned about the enslavement of minorities and it’s now universally condemned. However, there are some who feel that despite the harmful impacts of slavery, it should still serve as a learning purpose moving forward. Therefore, the University of Kentucky assigned Karyn Oliver to create a counterpiece to O’Hanlon’s mural in 2018. The artwork by Oliver, a Black artist, elevated the faces of the enslaved on a golden leaf background and now lies on the dome of the Memorial Hall rotunda.
However, the message of Oliver’s art seems to have fallen on deaf ears in terms of anti-racist activism. For too long, we have only spoken about what needs to be done; we must have the courage to take concrete steps to eradicate racism once and for all.
Oliver herself states her time as a student was “marked by protests and sit-ins and weekly calls for justice.” Despite these peaceful efforts, our campus has made little progress. It took the murder of George Floyd for the University to determine that the Memorial Hall mural deserved to be removed; even as recently as April 2019, the University had remained indecisive, only choosing to cover it up at the time.
The timing of this action prompts the following questions: Is this where the University of Kentucky will end its anti-racism efforts? What will it take for us to progress from dialogue to taking concrete steps to eradicate racism?
The simple answer to both of those questions is that we cannot wait for the death of another innocent man or woman in order to enact change.
We must start this process in our classrooms. Currently, all students must take a CIS or WRD class in order to graduate. One of the CIS class requirements is to obtain 10 community service hours. We should use this class to not only have dialogue regarding racism, but also mandate that students volunteer some in Lexington’s Black communities. As an alum of Bryan Station High School, where 35.7% of the student body is African American and 52.7% receive free and reduced lunch, I know first-hand that small individual efforts will make a significant impact.
UK can help by providing African American high school students internship opportunities, helping with after-school tutoring, or partnering with other civil rights organizations that work to reduce racial inequalities. By starting with proactive efforts in our own community, we can then inspire change on a larger scale. The University of Kentucky should be a leader, not a follower, in the fight to end systemic racism.