A Virginia city eyed Pittsburgh’s controversial Stephen Foster statue — and says it’s not the only one

Pittsburgh still wants to find a local recipient, but that may prove difficult.

A close-up of a besuited Foster, just before the statue's removal.

A close-up of a besuited Foster, just before the statue's removal.

Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline
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Pittsburgh’s infamous Stephen Foster statue almost became Colonial Heights, Virginia’s infamous Stephen Foster statue. Almost.

City council members there recently abandoned an informal plan to acquire the statue from the City of Pittsburgh, which removed the statue from its decades-old perch in Schenley Park on April 26 following a backlash against what many argued is racist imagery. The statue has remained in city storage in a lot adjacent to a dog park, with officials looking for a possible taker and finding few possibilities, if any, locally.

In Colonial Heights, Councilmember John Wood recently proposed that the city “reach out to officials in Pittsburgh about the possibility of acquiring [the] 10-foot-tall, 800-pound sculpture of 19th-century composer Stephen Foster,” the Progress-Index first reported. But while other officials initially supported the idea, council did an about-face last Tuesday after members “obtained additional information” about the artwork that left them opposed to hosting it after all.

“We didn’t have enough background on the statue,” Mayor Gregory Kochuba told the paper. “But now that we have comprehensive information, we aren’t interested in having the statue in Colonial Heights.”

City Manager Douglas Smith sent an email last week to Pittsburgh officials about the statue and was told other cities are interested in it as well. In a phone call with The Incline, Smith said he was asked by a Pittsburgh representative if he wanted to add Colonial Heights to the list of cities under consideration for future ownership. Smith said a check with council members found the “vast majority” of the seven-member body did not.

Colonial Heights’ Wood told The Incline he’s willing to spend up to $1,000 of his own money to acquire the statue. He said the money is not a payment for the statue but a “good-faith gesture” that could go toward a planned monument to an African-American woman at the former site of the Foster statue in Pittsburgh.

Reached by email Tuesday, Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, confirmed Colonial Heights reached out but said he was unsure if other municipalities had, adding, “…it doesn’t matter anyway — the Art Commission gave the city until May 2019 to find a new home within the city, so the Office of Public Art isn’t entertaining any outside offers.”

McNulty said the city’s Art Commission will approve all guidelines and agreements for a new location once one is found. He said he knew of no physical list keeping track of cities under consideration for future ownership of the statue. McNulty said Yesica Guerra, Pittsburgh’s public art and civic design manager, has been the point person for inquiries like the one made by Smith on behalf of Colonial Heights. And he said the statue is “not for sale.”

Asked about the Progress-Index report and a reference to the city offering to put Colonial Heights on a list of cities “under consideration for future ownership,” McNulty said of Colonial Heights, “They reached out to us and as a courtesy we told them of the process we’re going through, and offered to keep them updated.”

In a phone call with The Incline, Wood, who is an attorney in Virginia, touted Stephen Foster’s musical accomplishments in saying Foster remains deserving of public acknowledgement. Foster is a native son of Pittsburgh and the so-called “Father of American Music” who penned musical staples like “Oh! Susannah” and “Camptown Races.” Wood said “Camptown Races” was written about a track in nearby Ashland, Va., but beyond that, Foster’s ties to Virginia are tenuous at best.

Pressed on his support for bringing the statue there, Wood said he feels elected officials like himself need to pushback against efforts to purge symbols some find offensive, adding, “A republic has to have open debate, and you have to have the opportunity to offend.”

Asked if he was concerned about the potential for offending the roughly 15 percent of Colonial Heights’ population that is African American with the Foster statue, Wood responded with a question of his own: “Should any political party or religious sect or group of people, organized or unorganized, or any ethnic group have the right or authority to eradicate anything they find offensive?”

Wood said he believes the “eradication of monuments is something that will continue if public officials don’t take a stand.” He added, “Once one group is dissatisfied and upset, then everyone else can be and then the tyranny does start, sir.”

This argument was made by supporters of the statue in Pittsburgh, as well.

“I’m concerned that Stephen Foster’s contributions are being disregarded because of the current political posturing of those that want to look at that particular statue and add an interpretation which I don’t believe Stephen Foster would agree with. And to honor Foster is not in any way to denigrate the contributions of Scott Joplin or Duke Ellington or any other composer of any other ethnic or political background.” Wood pointed to his offer of support for Pittsburgh’s planned monument to an African-American woman in attempting to emphasize this point.

Meanwhile, Wood said he still hopes he can “bring the statue to Colonial Heights,” even though its city manager told The Incline that seems highly unlikely now, in light of council’s newfound perspective on the matter.

“At this point this is not something we’re planning to pursue,” Smith said of city staff and the statue. “And we have council’s input now as well.”

But there are others asking.

In Pittsburgh, Guerra, the city’s public art and civic design manager, said at an Art Commission meeting in May that there have been inquiries about the statue from other states, although an exact number wasn’t cited. “It has been brought up to the Mayor, who requests that for the next year they seek a new home for the statue within the City of Pittsburgh,” she said, according to the published minutes of that meeting.

Peduto has been clear that he’s in favor of the statue remaining in Pittsburgh, while the city encountered initial reluctance from possible recipients including Pitt and the Carnegie Museums. Even the Stephen Foster Memorial has said it wants no part of the sculpture.

The removal of the Foster statue followed years of complaints and months of heightened controversy about its imagery and racial undertones. Critics pointed to its offensive and outdated depiction of a black man in tattered clothing seated at Foster’s feet. Supporters said the statue had been wrongly politicized amid a nationwide purge of offensive public art and Confederate monuments on the heels of deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., in August of last year.

Most recently, a Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was torn down Tuesday by a group of roughly 250 protesters.