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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.”
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.