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Identity & Community

Majority Of Testifiers Ask Art Commission To Remove Or Relocate Oakland's Stephen Foster Statue

Virginia Alvino Young
90.5 WESA
Delores Dupree of the National Council of Negro Women testifies before Pittsburgh's Art Commission.

It’s a 10-foot tall bronze statue on a four-foot tall granite base, that many Pittsburghers want to see moved.

The statue of Stephen Foster exhibited conspicuously in Oakland's Schenley Park, was first displayed in Highland Park.

“The statue was unveiled in September 1900 at what was a highly anticipated event,” said archivist Nick Hartley at a public hearing held by the Pittsburgh Art Commission to discuss the statue. “The numbers vary but it’s said to have attracted anywhere between 10- and 50,000 visitors.”

Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, was responsible for depicting native Pittsburgh composer Steven Foster writing on a parchment, with a shoeless black man at his feet plays banjo, inspiring his song– often perceived as the character Uncle Ned. It was moved to Schenley Park in 1944, where it is now.

Some people want it to stay there.

“Don’t hide Ned,” testified Theodore Lay. “I am rooting for Ned and not Stephen foster. Let Ned have his day in the sun, in Oakland, and represent the heritage of the slaves by his presence.”

“Foster was a patriotic American, his statue deserves to stand where it is,” said Jim Wudarczyk.

Others brought up the fact that Foster didn’t exclusively write songs for minstrel shows, which utilized black face. He himself wasn’t an abolitionist, but had friends that were.

“I don’t see this personally as racist, I never even noticed Stephen foster,” said Marshall Goodwin, “it’s this wonderful man with a smile on his face, through the worst adversity, making this joyous sound.”

But most of the online commenters disagreed with those sentiments. The Art Commission has received 126 inputs, most in favor of removing or relocating the statue, 19 asking to alter it and 32 preferring to just let it be.  

At the public hearing, Stephen Moon pointed out that none of the people who testified and wanted to leave the statue where it is were black. 

“Notably, only white men who see themselves in this statue are going to come before you today and say that they want to keep it,” he said, “and as a pretty white council we need to make sure we’re choosing the right side of history.”

Renee Piechocki, director of the Office of Public Art, said that the council’s decision will reflect on the city as a whole.

“We are positioning ourselves as a progressive, forward-thinking city that is welcoming to all," she said. "This sculpture negates that message.”

She said some people aren’t focusing on the actual problem at hand.

“The debate about this sculpture is not about Stephen Foster’s worthiness. It is about whether or not it is appropriate to allow a racist caricature to be on public property.”

Sean Champagne agreed that what’s depicted is pure caricature, which allows people to have a rose-colored view of history.

“It trivializes the issue of slavery. It treats it as something folksy or charming,” said the recent University of Pittsburgh School of Law graduate. “It denies what it actually was, which is one of the greatest crimes in this nation’s history, and a crime against humanity itself.”

Some testified that a plaque could be added to provide more context, while others, like Delores Dupree of the National Council of Negro Women said the visuals of the sculpture are just too jarring.   

“Not only does it depict a white man in a dominant, oppressive posture over a black man portrayed as a slave, but it boldly portrays this same white man claiming the black man’s work as his own,” said Dupree. “We contend that our children do not need to be constantly bombarded with demeaning images of our troubling oppression.”

Pittsburgher Billy Hileman summed up an idea many in the room seemed to get behind.

“I don’t have any of the credentials that other people have spoke do, but I do at least want to let you know I really hate that statue. I think it’s awful. I don’t think you should find another place for it, I think you should melt the metal part down, maybe make gravel out of the pedestal, I don’t really care,” he said.

Hileman said he’s been troubled by the statue since he would ride his bike past it as a kid.

“This statue clearly sends the message of what white people ... continue to steal from black people, including their freedom, their lives, their music, their culture," he said. "That’s what that statue means to me. I don’t want to be a part of it, and I don’t want my city to be a part of it.”

The Public Art Commission will continue to collect public input online. On Oct. 25, it'll hear further testimony, and vote on a recommendation.