Pittsburgh wants to replace Oakland’s controversial Stephen Foster statue with one honoring an African American woman

Seven replacement options, all with Pittsburgh ties, are being suggested.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

Update, April 11

There will be five community meetings seeking public feedback on the city’s plan to select an African American woman to be honored at the site of the Stephen Foster statue. Register for the forums here. Childcare will be provided at the April 25, May 1 and May 3 forums.

Here are the meetings:

  • 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 17 at McKinley Recreation Center, 900 Delmont Ave (Beltzhoover)
  • 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19 at Pittsburgh Project, 2801 N Charles St (Perry South)
  • 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25 at Nazarene Baptist Church, 7053 Hamilton Ave  (Homewood South)
  • 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 1 at Sheraden Healthy Active Living Center,  720 Sherwood Ave (Senior Center) (Sheraden)
  • 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3 at Hill House Association, 1835 Centre Ave (Crawford-Roberts)

Original article:

With a deadline nearing for action on a plan to remove and relocate Oakland’s Stephen Foster memorial statue, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office today announced it is “seeking the public’s help in selecting an African American woman to be honored with a statue” at the site.

“There are very few monuments in Pittsburgh dedicated to the many women leaders who have left their mark on the city,” a statement from the mayor and his Task Force on Women in Public Art announced.

“At present, there are no African American women represented,” the statement continued. “As the Stephen Foster statue is set to be removed from its current site in April, the city has a unique opportunity to build something in its place honoring the legacy of African American women and their impressive leadership in Pittsburgh.”

The Foster memorial, which depicts the native Pittsburgher and so-called “Father of American Music” seated above what’s considered to be an objectionable depiction of a black musician, came under fire on the heels of deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., last year and amid a purge of controversial public art nationwide. The city, which said it had already been reviewing the Foster statue’s appropriateness for public display prior to that, tasked the city’s Art Commission with recommending a course of action.

In October, after a pair of impassioned public hearings on the subject, the Art Commission recommended removing and relocating the Foster statue to a setting where it could be properly contextualized.

And while it’s unclear where that might be or whether a new location has been lined up, the city is moving forward with a plan to remove the Foster statue while the details are ironed out. Today’s open call for possible replacements further proves that.

Per the mayor’s press release:

“Public art is a vehicle to tell local histories, to enhance quality of life, to add beauty and value to the urban landscape and to inspire people across all cultures, generations and economic circumstances. The City of Pittsburgh believes in inclusivity and equality, and ensuring that all can see themselves in the art around them. It is imperative then that our public art reflect the diversity of our city and that we accordingly represent our diverse heroes.

The Peduto administration has been working with a myriad of organizations including Gwen’s Girls, Hill House Association, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Women and Girls Foundation, the Women’s Institute at Chatham University and the Urban League to begin the process of commissioning public art representing women of color and their many notable achievements. To that end they are urging that the Pittsburgh community be involved in helping to select an African American woman to be honored in statue-form in place of the Stephen Foster installation.

Another round of community meetings will be convened to gather public input. Those meetings have yet to be scheduled.

There is also a web forum offering seven replacement options for the Foster statue — Gwendolyn J. Elliott, Madam C.J. Walker and Selma Burke among them — and all with Pittsburgh connections. The forum, which is currently up on the city’s site, allows interested parties to select one of the seven names suggested or to write in others. 

Input from the public meetings and web forum will be used to craft a Request for Proposals that will be issued for the replacement artwork, the statement added.

The City’s Public Art Commission then will review and deliberate on the proposed location and artwork. The Public Art and Civic Design Division in collaboration with other city departments will then support the procurement and installation process.

According to the mayor’s press release, the Task Force on Women in Public Art was formed last year by the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Dan Gilman when he was still on City Council.

“As Mayor, I am excited and passionate about this project,” Peduto added. “Public art shows what we value and want to memorialize for all to see. I look forward to the community’s input to see how we can remember and commemorate African American women and all their contributions in the City of Pittsburgh.”

The Foster statue in question depicts the famed composer (who was white) looking regal above a banjo-playing black man in tattered clothing. The statue, which sits on public property 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.

That subtext and the artwork itself has drawn a great deal of criticism over the years, prompting objections from Pitt students and others who view it as both anachronistic and offensive. Vice noted it among America’s many racist statues, as did Bustle.

There are also those who view it differently, and the statue has remained something of a Rorschach test locally, with defenders insisting the Foster memorial has been wrongly politicized and misinterpreted.

But Mayor Peduto has been clear that he wants to see the statue removed and relocated, preferably to an “educational setting of some sort.” He’s also vowed to meet an April deadline established with the Art Commission’s remove-and-relocate recommendation.