Meet the task force looking to replace the Stephen Foster statue with a tribute to an African-American woman

“Where are all the women, especially women of color?”

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
MJ Slaby

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:

As discussions swelled in October about the fate of the Stephen Foster statue, Jessie Ramey, director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham University, asked a question about Pittsburgh’s statues: “Where are all the women, especially women of color?”

In a column for the Post-Gazette, published between the two public hearings about the statue, Ramey wrote:

It’s long past time to recognize the women who shaped Pittsburgh’s history as leaders, thinkers and artists. By highlighting the achievements and contributions specifically of women of color, we can center the experiences of those most marginalized in our culture.

She added that “public art reflects a community’s values and priorities,” and offered a list of “seven remarkable women who are ready for their statues in the Steel City.” (Read about those women here.)

Ramey’s column was the starting point of what’s now Pittsburgh’s Task Force on Women in Public Art, which is leading a search to select an African-American woman to honor with a statue in place of the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland, the city announced Wednesday.

Following the column, Ramey, as well as several others, who are now task force members, met with then-Council Member Dan Gilman and showed him the column calling for a statue of a Pittsburgh African-American woman. Currently, the city has very few monuments and/or statues dedicated to women and none to African-American women. From there, the task force began.

At first, the task force thought there could be multiple locations for the statue, said member Lindsay Powell, a policy analyst in the mayor’s office and a honoree of The Incline’Who’s Next politics. But when the group really considered the narrative and the concerns about what the Foster statue represented, replacing that statue with this new one would be a way to show how the city has progressed, she said.

And, she said, it would “honor and celebrate the legacy of women of color in Pittsburgh.”

Having a statue, not an art installation or plaque, would show African-American women someone who looks like them in a permanent way, she said, adding that it was important to commemorate that legacy in a way that wasn’t temporary. However, per the city, it is possible that the new public art will honor more than one woman.

The 12-member task force includes representatives from the city like Powell, as well as Ramey and others from multiple organizations focused on women, inclusion and more.

Rochelle Jackson, director of the Women and Girls Foundation’s Femisphere Project, said having two representatives on the task force — CEO Heather Arnet and Olivia Benson, community engagement director — reflects the Femisphere’s goal of making “Pittsburgh an ecosystem where women and girls can thrive.”

“For that to happen, women need to be at the center of development efforts and black girls and women need to be able to see themselves reflected in the honored history of this city,” she said via email.

Additional task force members are:

  • Terri Baltimore, director of neighborhood engagement for the Hill House Association
  • Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh
  • Kathi Elliot, executive director of Gwen’s Girls
  • Kevin Jenkins, executive vice president and COO of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild
  • Valerie McDonald-Roberts, chief of urban affairs for the city
  • Itha Cao, policy analyst for the city
  • Gloria Forouzan, office manager for the city
  • Yesica Guerra, public art and civic design manager for the city

On Wednesday, the city launched an online forum seeking feedback from residents. The forum includes the seven women (listed below) that Ramey said are statue-ready as well as a place for added suggestions:

  • Catherine Delany (1822-1894), abolitionist
  • Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919), entrepreneur
  • Jean Hamilton Walls, Ph.D. (1885-1978), educator and leader
  • Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962), singer
  • Selma Burke (1900-1995), artist
  • Helen Faison, Ph.D. (1924-2015), educator
  • Gwendolyn J. Elliott (1945-2007), police officer

The list of seven women is by no means exhaustive, and the task force wanted to consider all the African-American women who have contributed to the vibrancy of the city, Powell said. Now that the online forum is open, she said the next step is setting community meetings to gather more public input. The community feedback will lead to request for proposals for the artwork, which will then go to Pittsburgh’s Public Art Commission. A timeline has not been set.

The Foster statue, which shows him seated above what’s considered to be an objectionable depiction of a black musician, is due to be removed in April. Conversations about the statue’s fate reignited after deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., last year and as cities across the country remove controversial and racist public art. The city’s Art Commission recommended removing and relocating the statue, which was commissioned in 1900, and Mayor Bill Peduto said he’d meet an April deadline for that recommendation.

As for the task force, Powell said it’s possible it will continue after this project and do more to increase the representation of women in all forms of public art. But for right now, the group is focused on this project.

It’s been exciting to see the early response, she said, adding that it’s a way for the city to address the concerns about the Foster statue and move forward to honor a new legacy.

“It shows that we’re listening as a city and trying to address a lot of historical hurt,” she said.