With a bang of the gavel shortly after 5 p.m., the first of two public hearings on the future of Pittsburgh’s embattled Stephen Foster memorial got underway Wednesday, capping weeks of official deliberation and sometimes heated debate.
Standing before the city’s Art Commission, which has been tasked with deciding what should become of the controversial statue, members of the public pressed for its removal, calling it a racist and offensive contradiction of Pittsburgh ideals — and a blemish on the city’s increasingly progressive public persona. Others defended the statue, arguing that its imagery has been misinterpreted.
Renee Piechocki of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art counts herself among the former group. She asked the Art Commission, “Would we include the sculpture on a top ten list of what they [Amazon] should see?” as Pittsburgh bids to host the tech giant’s new HQ2 facility.
Piechocki continued, “This sculpture depicts a real historical figure, Stephen Foster, and a caricature of an African-American male, not an actual musician who was living and working at the time. This is not a portrait of Old Ned. It is a portrait of how white people in the 1890s felt it was appropriate to depict an African-American musician.”
Marshall Goodwin offered another take entirely, indicating that for some the statue remains a bit of a Rorschach test.
“I think Stephen Foster was inspired by this banjo player and by this music that he heard,” Goodwin said, calling the statue a testament to the power of music, not the legacy of racism.
“So, I don’t see this personally as racist. I never even noticed Stephen Foster,” Goodwin continued. “It’s this wonderful man with a smile on his face through the worst adversity making this joyous sound, and this joyous sound was so infectious even white people could not deny it.”
But Sean Champagne, a Pitt law school graduate, argued that the subtext of slavery is impossible to separate from the statue’s imagery.
“This is depicting not a piece of history but a piece of folklore, and a piece of folklore that denies the context necessary for a conversation about slavery and white supremacy,” he said.
Champagne added, “This is not about removing or dishonoring Foster. It’s about what slavery is and was.”
Of the 17 or so people who commented at the hearing, roughly five favored keeping the statue where it is, while the rest favored relocating or removing it altogether.
Tonight’s public hearing inside the John P. Robin Civic Building at 200 Ross St. was just the latest venue for this ongoing discussion.
Members of the public have also been able to comment on the statue through the Art Commission’s website since September. As of today, 126 comments had been received via the site — 26 in favor of removing the statue, 34 for relocating it, 19 for adding signs to contextualize the piece, 32 for doing nothing and 15 offering no opinion either way.
A second public hearing is slated for later this month, after which a summary of public comments and a final Art Commission recommendation will be made. You can go to that hearing at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 25. It will also be held in the John P. Robin Civic Building.
The commission’s final recommendation on what to do with the Foster statue, a recommendation that will consider these public comments, could involve relocating the statue, removing it altogether, altering it or keeping it where it is.
The matter will then go to Mayor Bill Peduto, who will review the commission’s recommendations.
Katie O’Malley, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office, explained, “Ultimately, the Mayor has final authority over the disposition of the statue, but he will be making an informed decision based on any recommendations and data received. It’s possible that City Council could be involved in a budgeting decision, if necessary, but there is no technical review of the recommendations for City Council.”
The statue itself depicts Foster (who was white) looking regally appointed above a black, banjo-playing slave in tattered clothing — believed to be a character from the songs “Old Uncle Ned” or “Old Black Joe.” The statue, which sits near the University of Pittsburgh campus on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, was commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper editor. According to a 2010 City Paper article, that editor imagined Foster — the so-called “Father of American Music” and a native Pittsburgher — “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 artistic interpretation of that vision has long raised eyebrows. But the debate surrounding the statue had softened before reigniting in the wake of a fatal Charlottesville protest surrounding the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and amid a nationwide push to eradicate racially incendiary symbols from public spaces.
From that conversation, two camps have emerged here in Pittsburgh: those who want to see the Foster statue removed from its perch after more than a century on public display and those who say it should stay where it is. The latter argues that Foster’s accomplishments should be celebrated and that his statue has been wrongly politicized. Foster is best known for composing American classics like “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” This work includes musical numbers used in a slew of blackface minstrels.
Last month, Peduto said he’d like to see the statue moved to “an educational setting of some kind,” where it can be properly contextualized.
But even removed from the Oakland statue’s imagery, Foster’s legacy — one with a very complicated relationship to African Americans, African-American music and deep ties to blackface minstrelsy — has also become a flashpoint, as the August removal of a Foster mural on private property in Lawrenceville proved.
At Wednesday’s meeting, some defended Foster’s patriotism and worldview, even painting him as progressive by 19th Century standards. Others asked if that even matters.
“Foster was not a Confederate and he did not actively fight to maintain the institution of slavery,” Andrew Johnson, an associate professor with CMU’s school of art, said. “But none of this needs to be considered. … The message the statue currently conveys is truly awful.”
“It is part of our history,” responded a man in favor of keeping it. “We just got to deal with it. It’s already over. I think we all ought to settle down.”