On Thursday, City of Pittsburgh crews removed the Stephen Foster statue from Schenley Park, drawing national media attention and prompting a predictably divided online reaction.
On Friday, a Reddit user found the statue in a vacant lot next to a dog park and posted a photo of the uncovered statue.
Tim McNulty, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, confirmed that the 800-pound statue is in a lot belonging to the city’s Department of Public Works next to an off-leash area in Highland Park and that the statue had been covered or was about to be covered Friday.
Kevin McKenzie of Highland Park took the Reddit photo. In a phone conversation with The Incline, he said, “I thought it was strange, just as an outside observer. I thought they would put it in a warehouse for now rather than a park.”
He added, “There were a handful of other people there with their dogs, and I saw a few taking pics as well.”
The Reddit reaction to the post ranged from amusement to questions about why the city had chosen this location. McKenzie said there were no other artworks on the lot, which he added is separated from the dog park by two fences and a matter of feet.
By now you’re likely familiar with all that preceded the removal: the criticism of the statue and its depiction of a black, shoeless man seated at Foster’s feet; the public hearings convened on the heels of Charlottesville, Va.; the city Art Commission’s recommendation that the statue be removed and possibly relocated; the mayor’s support for that recommendation; and then Thursday’s publicly unheralded dislodging of the century-old artwork by a Department of Public Works crew.
While critics took issue with the statue’s depiction of a black man, defenders argued that Foster had wrongly been dragged into a larger debate — one that intensified on the heels of deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., last year and the nationwide purge of Confederate symbols and monuments that followed.
But for those arguing that Foster’s legacy has been erased or diminished with the statue’s removal, it’s important to note that he remains very present in the public sphere here. If you’re standing at the statue’s former site — one soon to be occupied by a statue honoring an African-American woman — you don’t have to look far for proof.
Just across Forbes Avenue sits the Stephen Foster Memorial, a Pitt building which contains two theaters, the Center for American Music and a trove of Stephen Foster memorabilia donated by Josiah Kirby Lilly of the family for which the Lilly pharmaceutical empire is named. Lilly, of Indianapolis, amassed a large collection of Foster memorabilia and donated it all to the Memorial in 1937 after first helping to fund the building’s construction. The collection includes manuscripts, personal possessions, sound recordings and more.
Then there’s the Mt. Lebanon school bearing Foster’s name; the Foster Window in Allegheny Cemetery, where Foster is buried; a historical marker at 3600 Penn Avenue, a private home at the site of Foster’s former dwelling; there’s also a Foster Street near to there and, of course, the Doo Dah Days — now Doo Dah Nights festival.
Tom Powers, current president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society, said there’s also The Steven Foster Community Center at 286 Main Street in Lawrenceville.
A Foster mural on a private building in Lawrenceville was painted over in August.
At the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland, Associate Director for the Center for American Music Kathryn Haines said she was unaware of any discussions about removing Foster’s name from the building or removing his memorabilia from its displays.
The city, meanwhile, is looking to find a new home for the Foster statue and reportedly having trouble doing so. In emails between the city and a representative of Pitt last year, the representative indicated that neither Pitt nor the Carnegie Museums were interested in housing the artwork.
Talks between the city and other parties continue, Yesica Guerra, public arts and civic design manager for the city said Thursday. Guerra declined to identify any of the third parties involved in those talks.
Brady Smith, a spokesperson with the Senator John Heinz History Center, said today, “As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any formal discussions about taking in the statue. Typically, the History Center wouldn’t take in a piece of public art.”
Asked if the Stephen Foster Memorial would consider taking the statue, Haines said today, “The university is not interested in taking it, absolutely not.”
She added: “I’ve been here over 20 years. I’ve had many conversations about the statue and agree that the statue was incredibly problematic. It conflated Foster, the historical figure, with incredibly offensive reconstructionist-era imagery. That wasn’t who Foster was.”
So who was he?
Foster was a mid-19th Century composer and arranger who wrote musical staples so omnipresent in American culture that they’re now effectively public domain. This includes “Oh, Susanna,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Oh My Darling Clementine,” any one of which includes a melody you’d recognize immediately upon hearing it, even if you couldn’t recall the title.
Foster was born in Lawrenceville on July 4, 1826. He died in New York City in January of 1864, at the age of 37, after a fever and fall in which he suffered a blow to the head. He was survived by a wife, Jane. The so-called Father of American Music had one child of his own, a daughter named Marion.
There are idiosyncrasies, to be sure. Foster wrote songs for a slew of blackface minstrels, some with incredibly crude language aimed at blacks and some with far more nuanced and humane depictions of black characters, especially given the popular standards of the time.
“He wrote empathic songs to African Americans including Nelly Was A Lady,” Haines said. “That song presented the marriage of a black man and a black woman as equal to that of a white man and white woman.”
And while it’s hard to know precisely what Foster’s views on race were, Haines said, his background has both fueled criticism and at times been used to challenge it. Foster, for example, was lifelong friends with Charles Shiras, a noted abolitionist who started the abolitionist journal, the Albatross.
Foster’s music also borrowed heavily from that of African Americans.
This dynamic was even central to the vision behind Pittsburgh’s now-dog-park-adjacent Foster tribute.
And while cultural appropriation, in this case the act of borrowing musical stylings without proper acknowledgement, was a term decades from being popularized then, and while it may have been a factor in the movement to see Foster’s Pittsburgh statue brought down, the driving force behind that movement was the artwork’s inclusion of the sort of black caricature often found in the blackface minstrels of Foster’s era.
At the Center for American Music, Haines said the statue’s removal “represents a little relief for us because the statue had been a bone of contention for so many years.”