KKK depiction in IU mural reignites debate



ci-kkkmural

Students wait for class to begin in Woodburn 100. The lecture hall contains a mural created by Thomas Hart Benton in 1933, which has created controversy for its depiction of hooded Ku Klux Klan members in its background.  Emily Eckelbarger Buy Photos

Hooded robes and burning crosses poke out the background of a mural hanging in Woodburn 100, bringing up a part of Indiana’s history many Hoosiers may want to forget. 

The mural depicting members of the Ku Klux Klan has sparked controversy many times throughout its tenure at IU, but three weeks ago, Jacquline Barrie, a former IU student, saw an opportunity to restart the conversation on Facebook. 

A petition has been circulating around social media asking IU to remove the mural from the classroom, saying the mural "violates the student rights and code of ethics by forcing students and faculty of color to work and study in an environment that promotes a group known for discriminating against people of color, homosexuals, non-Christians and various other marginalized groups of people." 

Barrie said she felt inspired to start the petition after seeing an argument on Facebook among friends talking about diversity at major universities. The mural was referenced in the conversation, and it sparked Barrie to start the petition.

“I talked to my friend privately, and you know, he just made some statements about it,” Barrie said. “So, I was just like, what can I do? What can be done?” 

The petition has received more than 1,400 signatures in the three weeks it has been up. People commented their reasons for signing the petition. 






The mural is part of a large-scale painting, “Social and Industrial History of Indiana,” by realist muralist Thomas Hart Benton. IU’s historian, James Capshew, said the painting was a depiction of Indiana for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. 

The mural has 11 panels depicting events and parts of Indiana’s culture, and 11 panels on the industrial history of Indiana. Most of the mural hangs in the IU Auditorium Hall of Murals, with various other pieces of the mural in spots around campus, including the IU Cinema. 

Benton wanted to display all parts of Indiana’s history, Capshew said, even if they were not pretty. 

“This is a historical mural,” Capshew said. “He wanted to talk about the history of Indiana: the good, the bad and the ugly.” 

Ryan Piurek, interim associate vice president of university communications, said the University recognizes that students might feel uncomfortable by the depiction in the mural. 

“We want to hear more from our students and faculty,” Piurek said. “One thing we can do is listen.”

Piurek said IU has and will continue to work toward making sure students understand the mural's historical context. He said after years of analysis and discussion, IU has consistently said the best way to respond to the mural is through education. 

Barrie does not want the University to simply respond.

Barrie said the University is reactive, and she wants it to be proactive. She said she understands the importance of art preservation, and she does not want to destroy the mural. 

“Move it so it can be talked about, so it can be given the proper attention,” Barrie said. “It’s important that students know the University supports them as people, and I’m just not sure the message the University is sending right now is doing that.” 

Nanette Brewer, a curator at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art, said IU has worked for years to contextualize the murals, showing videos explaining the mural to classes taught in Woodburn 100, holding symposiums and giving basic information on its history. The museum provides resources for elementary schools through website modules, explaining the mural’s history. 

Another way IU educates students and campus visitors is through a series of didactic plaques and posters in Woodburn Hall providing context of the mural. 

A section of the didactic states: “Indiana University is committed to working toward a campus that is free from discrimination and that celebrates the diversity of its various community members.” It also gives resources on the University’s website for people to provide their comments or concerns about the mural. 

“I think he wanted them to continue to live and have people talking about them,” Brewer said about Benton’s intent regarding the murals. “And certainly that’s happening, and hopefully that allows us to continue some important discussions on issues that are still being faced today.”

Lanier Holt, a former IU professor and current assistant professor at Ohio State University, said education is not enough. He equated the mural to putting up a picture of the Holocaust in a classroom. 

“There’s a lot of ways you can remember a troubled history of a state, but out of all the things to do, you do that?” Holt said. “There’s these things called books they could use to educate people.” 

Holt taught in the classroom during his time at IU. He said he felt it was a hostile work environment. But, he said he is not going against artistic freedom. His beef is with IU, he said.

As someone who teaches and studies race and ethnicity, he said he does not understand how the University is still hanging the mural. He said IU's location already puts the University in a tough spot when talking about race, with Martinsville, a town historically known for KKK activity, about 20 miles away.

“Indiana tries to push this idea of diversity, but at some point, the University has to do something that is highly uncomfortable to it, in order to bring change,” Holt said. 

Holt said there are some things that do not need context, that the image on the mural is clear. He said he has been asked about the murals in job interviews at other universities. 

When he interviewed at University of Iowa in 2009, he said one of the questions he was asked was whether IU still had the mural up. He said that in universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, there is a preconceived notion of Indiana's reputation. 

"You talk to black people in Wisconsin, the first thing they think of Indiana is one of two things," Holt said. "Racism and basketball."

Barrie said her goal is to have the mural panel relocated out of the classroom. As a current resident of Florida, she said she had to pause her work to evacuate because of the hurricane, but she said she is still looking to move forward. 

She said she, as a former IU student, wants to work with student organizations and current students to push for an organization of protests and talks on the mural to pressure the University to relocate it. 

Though IU has dealt with this controversy over the years and continues to assert the mural belongs in the classroom, Barrie said she believes her fight is different. She said she is examining the issue in a way in which she says IU is violating its own policy of diversity.

She said the University contradicts itself by recognizing that the mural might cause emotional responses and upset students but then preaches a safe and inclusive environment.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she said. 

Capshew disagrees. As the University’s historian, he said there are more salient ways to combat racism than getting rid of the mural. 

"Getting rid of that thing because it makes people uncomfortable, well, sometimes education can be a little uncomfortable," Capshew said.

Holt said it all comes down to how people inherently interpret the mural, despite its context.

“If you went by somebody’s house and they had a burning cross in the front yard, do you go in?” Holt said. 

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