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The Stephen Foster monument in Pittsburgh (photo via Wikipedia)

The city of Pittsburgh has reached a very specific decision on what to do with a public statue that many locals call racist: remove it, and replace it with a monument to an African-American woman. The verdict, announced Wednesday, follows similar votes in other cities, from San Jose to New York City, to relocate controversial artworks on public land. The nationwide debate over historical monuments flared up after last summer’s riots in Charlottesville over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

The statue in question depicts Stephen Foster, a Pittsburgh-born composer, alongside a Black slave who sits by his feet, playing the banjo while barefoot. By this April, it will come down from its prominent site in North Oakland, to yield its place to an African-American female leader who has left her mark on the city, as the Mayor’s office announced. The new monument will represent Pittsburgh’s first-ever statue that honors a Black woman.

‘The City of Pittsburgh believes in inclusivity and equality, and ensuring that all can see themselves in the art around them,” the Mayor’s statement reads. “It is imperative then that our public art reflect the diversity of our city and that we accordingly represent our diverse heroes.”

Selma Burke with her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington (c. 1935) (Public domain image via Wikipedia)

The city is now asking locals to help select a figure to honor and has set up a survey where people can submit suggestions. The online form also lists seven prominent figures for consideration, nominated by Pittsburgh historian Dr. Jessie B. Ramey. They include artist Selma Burke, a member of the Harlem Renaissance; abolitionist Catherine Delany; and educator Jean Hamilton Walls, who was the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Stephen Foster statue will be moved temporarily to a private location while the city finds it a permanent home. Standing 10-feet-tall near the Carnegie Library, it was sculpted in 1900 by Giuseppe Moretti, whom The Pittsburgh Press commissioned using public funds it raised. According to Pittsburgh City Paper, a Press editor had apparently suggested the design, and imagined Foster “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.” The alt-weekly reported that the sculpture has for years offended many locals for how it represents people of color, and that it was one reason why community groups did not think it appropriate for the NAACP to hold its 1997 convention in Pittsburgh.

The monument was originally unveiled in Highland Park but was moved to its original location in 1944. While local officials received numerous calls over the years to remove it, it was only last year that the city decided to launch a process to review it. Last September, the Art Commission invited the public to post their opinions on its website, before it hosted public hearings in October. Although some people say that the monument depicts Stephen Foster drawing inspiration by the banjo player, the Art Commission ultimately recommended that it be removed, relocated, and contextualized.

Wednesday’s decision from the Mayor’s office affirmed this vote. The city will now organize more community meetings to gather public input about the new statue. A special task force will use this input to help draft a proposal for the forthcoming artwork, which the city’s Public Art Commission will then review. The task force consists of members from various local organizations, including the Women and Girls Foundation and Women’s Institute at Chatham University.

“The Women in Public Art Task Force came together when it came to the City’s attention that we had very few statues dedicated to women, and none dedicated to women of color in Pittsburgh,” Lindsay A. Powell, a policy analyst in the mayor’s office told Hyperallergic. “As a Task Force, we are looking to commission a statue that honors and commemorates the contributions of African American women to Pittsburgh and celebrates their legacies.

Mayor Bill Peduto has been working with the Task Force to commission more public art that represents women of color. The new monument, whomever it honors, will be just one of many to come that celebrate the achievements of those overlooked for too long.

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE, Gothamist, Artnews, Smithsonian Magazine,...

6 replies on “Pittsburgh Will Replace Racist Monument with Statue of a Black Woman”

  1. Stephen Foster was one of the greatest songwriters ever produced by America.One of the best of his songs, ‘Oh Susannah’, hasn’t been sung properly for years because because its witty, surreal and heartbreaking lyrics include the infamous ‘n-word’ – which, in its lesser way, is rather like not performing The Merchant of Venice because it is anti-semitic. Another of his masterpieces is entitled ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’. Shameful times have come to Pittsburgh. Brian Lynch at http://www.brianlynch.org

  2. Stephen Foster was the first great American songwriter. By the standards of his time, there was nothing “racist” about him. He has a statue because he had greatness in him.
    Now, many want it torn down to and replaced by a Black Woman. Any racism of Foster’s was essentially unintended; the racism in Philly is THE ENTIRE POINT of the statue. RACE is all that matters here. I call THAT racism.
    Mindless progressives a century from now (they will always be with us) will look back on the average person of our day and be APPALLED by certain of our behaviours which we all accept in our time. Have the same courtesy to America’s first songwriting genius. He DESERVES his tribute for his genius, not his color.

  3. Wow! When I look at this statue, I hardly see Stephen Foster at all. I see the pure joy of music exquisitely rendered.

  4. Leaving aside Foster’s attitude on race — recall that he was making his living writing songs, often under contract for a minstrel show company, and also that he wrote:

    Wid musket on my shoulder and wid banjo in my hand,
    For Union, and de Constitution as it was I stand.
    Now some folks tink de darkey for dis fighting was’nt made,
    We’ll show dem what’s de matter in de Colored Brigade!

    — it’s shabby journalism to write about the controversy without some account of his life or standing in American music. This isn’t the only statue to his memory, and an entire museum is devoted to him. One minute of Googling would have yielded much insight into Foster and his works, which your correspondent could have used to enrich this piece. Journalism, too, partakes of art, and you owe it to your readers to make sure it is done well.

    P.S. What happens to the Giuseppe Moretti statue now? Does this piece of pleasant public art get melted down as scrap?

  5. Not only should the women be considered but also the art that represents them. The Pittsburgh survey shows only candidates not the art that represents them. I have nothing against BT Washington but that is one ugly bust of him. Replacing a joyful statue of a composer who was not racist given the culture of his time with a scowling black man would be misdirected if not actually racist.

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