Meet 7 black women whose tribute could replace the Stephen Foster statue in Pittsburgh

Tuesday is the first of five meetings for public feedback.

Photos of Selma Burke, Gwen Elliott, and Mary Caldwell Dawson.

Photos of Selma Burke, Gwen Elliott, and Mary Caldwell Dawson.

Courtesy of Heinz History Center

In a historic and symbolic move, a statue honoring an African-American woman could replace the soon-to-be-removed Stephen Foster statue in Oakland.

Nearly a month ago, the city launched a search to select a woman to honor, and so far, there have been roughly 1,000 responses to an online feedback form. Tuesday is the first of five public meetings for in-person feedback.

The general public doesn’t know a lot about women in history, especially marginalized women including women of color, but this isn’t a new conversation, said Jessie Ramey, director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham University and a member of Pittsburgh’s Task Force on Women in Public Art, which is leading the search. There is ongoing grassroots work by many women of color to preserve these stories.

And, she said, their stories are part of Western Pa. history that should make all Pittsburghers proud.

The city is collecting suggestions of who to honor, and Pittsburghers can also select from a list of seven women created by Ramey. That list of “seven remarkable women who are ready for their statues in the Steel City” was first published in an October Post-Gazette column by Ramey that later led to the city task force.

Ramey, whose work includes the history of women in Pittsburgh, said as she started to imagine the list, she was looking for a wide range — she wanted to include women from early in Pittsburgh’s history, as well as women of different occupations and different types of leadership.

She also wanted to think about historical context and what counts as leadership beyond politics. Some of the women on the list spent their lives in Pittsburgh, others were only here for a while — but all of them left an enduring legacy.

Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at Heinz History Center, said he could imagine some kind of composite image featuring all of the women, not just one.

“I think there should have been a memorial to a black woman put up regardless of the Stephen Foster statue,” Black said. “I can’t wait to see what they finally decide to do and who they hire to do it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a black woman sculptor do it? I hope that type of thinking isn’t overlooked in this whole thing.”

Meet the women

Catherine Delany (1822-1894)

Funding a movement

Although more people have heard of her husband Martin Delany, the founder of The Mystery, Pittsburgh’s abolitionist newspaper and a co-author of The North Star newspaper with Frederick Douglass, Ramey said Catherine Delany was just as vital to the newspaper and the abolitionist movement.

She was a big part of earning the money to fund abolitionists’ work, Ramey said, adding that Catherine Delany would go out and sell newspaper subscriptions and fundraise. Her work is a great example of the women’s labor that went unrecorded or obscured, Ramey said.

In addition, Catherine Delany also was active in the community and helped care for residents after the fire of 1845 destroyed much of the city, Ramey said.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919)

Making millions and giving back

Madam C.J. Walker was the first black woman to be a millionaire, but she died before women could vote, Ramey said.

Walker is known for creating a line of African-American hair care products and spent most of her career outside of Pittsburgh. Per the Washington Post, Walker started her company in 1906 in St. Louis, Mo. and in 1908, moved the company to Pittsburgh and opened “Lelia College,” which trained “hair culturists.” Walker then moved to Indianapolis within two years.

Even though she wasn’t here terribly long, she had a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh and left a legacy, Ramey said. Plus, Walker was an avid philanthropist.

Jean Hamilton Walls, Ph.D. (1885-1978)

Breaking ground in academics

Jean Hamilton Walls blazed a new path for women with her academic pursuits. She graduated from Allegheny High School in 1904 and then majored in mathematics and physics at Pitt, where she became the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.

After her Pitt graduation in 1910, she went on to receive a master’s degree at Howard University in 1912 and taught at the Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore; the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, N.C.; and the Fort Valley School in Georgia, according to Pittsburgh Urban Media.

She returned to Pittsburgh to serve as executive director of the Centre Avenue branch of the Y.W.C.A. and to pursue her her doctorate at Pitt — again, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university.

She is also listed as a charter member for the Pittsburgh chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, where the members “immediately began to provide service to Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities. They made high scholastic achievement, sincere sisterhood, and high moral standards a priority,” according to the chapter’s website.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962)

A pioneering musician

Mary Caldwell Dawson in an undated photo.

Mary Caldwell Dawson in an undated photo.

Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

An accomplished opera singer, choir director and classical musical teacher who came of age in the Homestead and Munhall area, Mary Cardwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company, Black said, emphasizing that she’s his “favorite on the list.” There were a number of black opera companies over the years, Black said, but Dawson’s was “the most successful and the most professionally run out of all of them.”

She served as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians and brought group’s national convention to Pittsburgh and launched the careers of some of the country’s top opera singers, such as Robert McFerrin, through her work with the group.

Even when she moved to Washington, D.C. with her family, she kept the headquarters of the opera company in Homewood in a now-condemned historic building on Apple Street which Woogie Harris owned and where Roberto Clemente once lived, Black said.

Dawson also founded the Cardwell School of Music in Homewood, operated the Cardwell Dawson Choir, and served on the National Music Committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy.

Dawson’s family bequeathed her documents and paperwork to Heinz History Center.

Selma Burke (1900-1995)

An artist who impacted a generation

Selma Burke in an undated photo.

Selma Burke in an undated photo.

Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

Black describes Selma Burke as “a true gift.”

An artist of the Harlem Renaissance and a student of Henri Matisse in Paris, she came to Pittsburgh as an accomplished artist and continued to make an impact here. She served as a sculptor-in-residence at the Carnegie Institute, opened neighborhood arts centers and taught tens of thousands of African-American children in the city, per Ramey’s research.

“She had a great impact not only as an artist nationally. She opened a gallery here. She taught people in the community art. She taught at one of the schools,” Black said. “Through her teaching, [she] really had an impact on a whole generation of artists.”

Some of her work can be found at the Hill House in the Hill District … or even in your own wallet. The bust she created of Franklin Roosevelt was used as the model for his image on the dime.

“Whenever you have 10 cents, just think of Selma Burke,” Black said.

Helen Faison, Ph.D. (1924-2015)

A trailblazing ‘giant’ in local education

Pictured at the Woolslair Elementary School 75th anniversary dinner are Helen Faison, assistant superintendent, Area III; Jesse Meyers of the Class of 1914 at Woolslair; Robert Pinkerton, principal; Dr. Merle Washburn and Dr. Donald O’Rourke, former principals at the school.

Pictured at the Woolslair Elementary School 75th anniversary dinner are Helen Faison, assistant superintendent, Area III; Jesse Meyers of the Class of 1914 at Woolslair; Robert Pinkerton, principal; Dr. Merle Washburn and Dr. Donald O’Rourke, former principals at the school.

Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

With a “tremendous” reputation as an educator, Black said, Helen Faison both studied extensively herself and shared her love of learning with others.

A Pittsburgh native, she was the first woman and first African-American to be a high school principal in the city. She moved up to assistant superintendent and deputy superintendent — the highest administrative post held by a woman at that time, per Ramey’s research. Then, she served as interim superintendent — blazing another trail as the first African-American in the position.

An elementary school in Homewood is named for her.

Faison earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and later became a professor at Chatham University, where she chaired the education department and directed the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, Ramey wrote.

“[She’s] known as a great educator,” Black said. “I don’t know if she has a national reach, but she’s a giant locally.”

Gwendolyn J. Elliott (1945-2007)

A champion of women and girls

A portrait of Gwen Elliott.

A portrait of Gwen Elliott.

Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

Gwendolyn Elliott was one of the first female Pittsburgh police officers and later became the city’s first black female commander.

She experienced overt racism and sexism throughout her career as a police officer, but she was tough woman, who served in the Air Force, Ramey said.

According to her obituary in the Post-Gazette, Elliott said that she was never ready to give up. “I never thought about quitting. Those men who didn’t cooperate with us in the early years made us smarter quicker. I was determined I was going to feed my babies, I was going to succeed.”

Elliott’s legacy lives on through multiple organizations in Pittsburgh from the Pittsburgh Police to the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, which she was a co-founder to her namesake nonprofit Gwen’s Girls, which is focused on at-risk girls ages 8 to 18.

She created the organization after seeing the struggles of young women and girls during her time as a Pittsburgh police officer, per the Gwen’s Girls website.

More ideas

In addition to these women, the city is open to additional suggestions of African American women who have made an impact on Pittsburgh.

Black has a recommendation of his own: Mary Lou Williams, a renowned jazz musician who grew up in East Liberty.

A portrait of Mary Lou Williams.

A portrait of Mary Lou Williams.

Courtesy of Heinz History Center

Even as she traveled, Black said, “she still had Pittsburgh in her heart and a real love and understanding for Pittsburgh jazz.”

In addition to her own musical accomplishments, she mentored Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

“Jazz was male-dominated during her era. For her to be able to accomplish that — to be a composer and arranger for Andy Kirk and Duke Ellington and so many others in that male-dominated world — was an accomplishment,” Black said. “If it wasn’t for Mary Lou Williams, would some of these jazz artists be as good as they became?” She had an impact on women because she pretty much led the way.”

Her piano is on display at Heinz History Center.

The task force will sift through all of the feedback from the form and community meetings to look for common themes and ideas, Ramey said.

Here’s a full list of community meetings:

  • 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday 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)

Register for the forums here. Childcare will be provided at the April 25, May 1 and May 3 forums.