Stephen Foster statue

Will Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster statue be the next racist symbol to go?

“What’s happening right now is that we’re studying what to do and how we should do it, and I think we’re pretty early in the process.”

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Colin Deppen / The Incline
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Updated, 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16

Days after violence in Charlottesville, Va., that left one dead and dozens more injured, Pittsburgh officials said they’re reevaluating a controversial — and some say racist — statue honoring native Pittsburgher and well-known 20th century composer Stephen Foster.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said the city’s planning department and art commission have been “in touch with the University of Pittsburgh and are reviewing questions that were raised about the statue to the university.”

Renee Piechocki, director with the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh, told The Incline by phone today:

This isn’t the first time the existence of the sculpture has been questioned. … The current and really even past questions of the sculpture came up through students and Pitt-related folks. I don’t know exactly who they were, the diversity office at Pitt is looking into it, and there is a working group that includes me, representatives of the city’s planning department, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and various departments at Pitt, as well as the Carnegie museums.

What’s happening right now is that we’re studying what to do and how we should do it, and I think we’re pretty early in the process. The sculpture is owned by the City of Pittsburgh, and it was moved from its original location in Highland Park to its current location back in late ’40s or early ’50s.

A call to Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion was not immediately returned.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to the statue of Foster, composer of “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and musical numbers for a slew of blackface minstrels.

The statue depicts Foster (who was white) looking regal above a banjo-playing black man in tattered clothing. The statue, which sits near the University of Pittsburgh campus on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, was commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper editor who 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,” per a 2010 City Paper article.

The imagery has long been objected to by Pitt students and others who view it as both anachronistic and offensive. Vice noted it among America’s many racist statues, as did Bustle.

A Pitt spokesman referred comment on the statue to city officials, saying the statue is “a city statue on city property.” It’s unclear where the questions or complaints cited by city officials in announcing their reevaluation of the statue originated.

The Peduto administration’s statement Tuesday came amid a wave of efforts to remove publicly placed symbols seen as relics of — or tributes to — a nation’s troubled and troubling past. Saturday’s deadly protests in Charlottesville were just the latest example, one inspired, at least in part, by the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Online reaction this week has included Facebook posts imploring Peduto’s administration to take down the statue and others seemingly in favor of it remaining put. Joe Wos, a pop culture historian and cartoonist in Pittsburgh, was among those to weigh in.

“I think the statue is itself racist. And I think that while a lot of [Confederate] statues represent a racist ideology, this is the rare case where the statue itself embodies that racism in its portrayal of ‘Uncle Ned,’ ” Wos told The Incline.

Wos added that “Uncle Ned” was a character from this NSFW Foster song, in which Ned is repeatedly referred to using the N-word. As for whether or not Foster himself was a racist, a Pitt FAQ forum addresses that very question and says the record remains somewhat mixed and harder to contextualize more than 150 years later.

“Pittsburgh likes to say: ‘We’re not racist. We were a stop on the Underground Railroad.’ But it’s not just Pittsburgh. It’s all of us,” Wos said. He supports removing the Foster statue but would also support the addition of a plaque explaining the imagery involved.

“Because I think that [context] is what’s missing from this. It can become a teachable moment.” Much like city officials now, Wos said prior mayors, including Tom Murphy, similarly reevaluated the Foster statue amid community concerns until, as Wos put it, “the fervor died down, and they moved on.”

Jackie Kipilo, a Beaver County resident who works in Pittsburgh, told The Incline that she thinks Foster’s statue should stay right where it is: “I’m outraged! Stephen Foster is a great composer and songwriter. He wrote hundreds of songs. Now a small group of people are approaching the mayor because they want the statue removed because one percent of his songs were supposedly racist.”

Kipilo also referenced this Pitt page about Foster’s life before mentioning the push to see similarly controversial statues across the country removed, “Where does it end? … This is our history — good, bad, like it or not.”

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