Updated 2:15 p.m.
Surrounded by a throng of media and almost no one else, a City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works crew gathered at the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland not long after sunrise today to begin its removal.
In the shadow of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and beneath a sun-drenched American flag waving high above it, a DPW backhoe pulled into position, its bucket hovering over the bronze artwork.
No members of the public looked on. The city had not notified residents of the statue’s removal and only notified members of the media with a press release issued Wednesday afternoon and embargoed until the removal process began.
As crews in neon yellow vests tied straps to the statue and then those straps to the machine, a woman nearby shouted “Take it down” but kept walking. Beyond that, there were no exclamations from passersby.
Instead, the statue was quietly and anticlimactically hoisted from its perch and onto a waiting flatbed truck.
After more than 100 years on public display, it was gone in an hour.
The removal followed years of debate, and months of heightened controversy, about the statue’s imagery and racial undertones. Critics pointed to its offensive and outdated depiction of a black man in tattered clothing seated at Foster’s feet.
Public and political sentiment turned further against the Foster memorial on the heels of deadly protests around a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
Foster, a Lawrenceville native, was the composer of musical staples like “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races” and has been called the Father of American Music. His career also included musical scoring for a slew of blackface minstrel shows, but his background was less the focus of calls for the statue’s removal than the person seated next to him in bronze.
Occasionally referred to as “Uncle Ned” or “Old Black Joe,” a black man is positioned at Foster’s feet in tattered clothing and playing a banjo. Foster is wearing a suit and, critics say, clearly the focal point of the homage’s reverence.
Foster supporters argued that Pittsburgh’s statue had been wrongly politicized and that the musician was no Lee. They claimed the statue represented the transcendent power of music and the shared bond between races.
The Foster statue was first erected in Highland Park in 1900 and later moved to its now former location in a grassy area — on city property — near the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.
A review of the artwork by the city’s Art Commission picked up steam soon after Charlottesville and included a pair of impassioned public hearings. That process ended with the commission recommending the statue be removed and possibly relocated to an educational or artistic setting where it can be “properly contextualized,” officials said at the time. Mayor Bill Peduto agreed, and a six-month deadline for removal was put in place. That window expired this month.
But the relocation end of the commission’s recommendation and ultimately the mayor’s concurrence, remains a question mark.
The city said Wednesday that the 10×4 foot bronze statue “will be transported to a Public Works facility for storage. The city has been in ongoing talks to find a permanent home for the statue.” There was initial reluctance to take the statue on the part of institutions like Pitt and Carnegie Museums, and a taker has yet to be located.
At this morning’s removal, Yesica Guerra, the city’s manager of public art, said the city was in talks with a number of possible recipients but declined to identify any of them. Guerra was on hand to oversee and observe the removal process, she explained.
Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Peduto’s office, was also on-site and in the moments before work began said he was confident that the city crew was up to the task. “They move big things all the time,” McNulty explained.
After the statue had been dislodged without incident, McNulty said he was pleased with how smoothly it had gone.
Crews had quietly begun examining the logistics weeks earlier, officials said, visiting the site along Forbes Avenue and also viewing video of the recent removal of a statue honoring J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who experimented on slaves, in New York’s Central Park.
Tom Samstag, acting supervisor with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works’ construction division, said this morning that the Foster statue weighs roughly 800 pounds. Its granite base weighs far more, he added. Crews had hoped the granite base was hollow but found out it wasn’t as soon as the sculpture atop it was removed.
DPW hauled away not just the statue, but both sections of the granite base by 8:30 a.m. While the exact removal plan had been kept quiet until this morning, it was also no secret that the statue would come down.
It was just a question of when.
The debate around the Foster statue intensified amid a national soul searching about public artworks in America and the values they represent and the often complex or controversial figures they pay homage to.
The statue 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.
Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas has called the Foster statue “the most racist statue in America.”
A mural of Foster on private property in Lawrenceville was also removed last year by the owners, one of whom said, “Given the time right now, it’s very relevant to us to put this message forth and be a part of the right side of history today, which is taking this down.”
In Pittsburgh, city officials have launched a bid to replace the Foster statue with one honoring an African-American woman. Public hearings around that process are ongoing. Photos and brief descriptions of the women have been posted at the site.
They looked on this morning as the Foster statue came down.
As pedestrians walked past the scene, some glanced over. Most if not all kept moving. One man said he’s noticed the statue before but that its imagery hadn’t bothered him.
A woman, who also declined to be identified in this article, felt otherwise.
“I’m glad it’s gone,” she said. “I’m glad it’s gone.”