The burden of history got about 800 pounds lighter on Thursday as the City of Pittsburgh removed a statue critics had called racist for decades.
The 118-year-old bronze monument, in Oakland, depicted famed Pittsburgh-born songwriter Stephen Foster and a barefoot black man playing a banjo at Foster's feet. During the morning rush hour, a city work crew using a backhoe and a web of strapping, took less than an hour to lift the statue from its granite pedestal and place it on a flatbed truck. It was transported to the Department of Public Works facility in Highland Park, where it will be kept until a permanent home can be found.
Responding to public outcry, the city’s Art Commission had voted this past October to remove the statue within six months. With that deadline approaching, the removal was announced to the media on Wednesday night, with the information embargoed until 7 a.m. Thursday.
For all the criticism it generated, the statue’s removal itself generated little attention from passersby. One young woman wearing a backpack as she walked across Forbes yelled, “Take it down!” A guy in a truck stopped at a traffic light yelled “Leave it up!” out his window.
The statue was prominently placed on Forbes Avenue right by the Carnegie Museums and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch.
Most observing the event were members of the media. Others included Mayor Bill Peduto's Chief of Staff Dan Gilman; the city’s Public Art and Civic Design manager, Yesica Guerra; and Timothy McNulty, spokesperson for the mayor.
A handful of people watching the action took cell-phone photos. One was Tammy Bevilacqua, who works nearby.
“I’m really glad that it’s being taken down. We need to take a stand on racism in America,” said Bevilacqua. “This isn’t a statue that provides any happiness for anybody but white people. So it’s time to get rid of it and replace it with something that we really care for.”
The city is currently holding public meetings to select an African-American woman from Pittsburgh to honor with a monument in place of the Foster statue. In fact, before removing the statue, workers took away small signs circling its pedestal noting African-American women from Pittsburgh who have been suggested as subjects for that replacement monument including artist Selma Burke and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.
While criticism of the statue date at least to the 1980s, calls to remove it intensified last year following the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of Confederate monuments there. Popular Pittsburgh-based blogger Damon Young called the Foster monument “the most racist statue in America,” and comments at a pair of public hearings held by the Art Commission were no less pointed. While a few speakers defended the statue as a tribute to Foster, most said it demeaned African Americans.
The statue was commissioned and conceptualized by civic leaders in the late 19th century and completed by sculptor Giuseppe Moretti. The figure of the raggedly dressed banjo player is a fictional character meant to represent an enslaved African-American whose music had supposedly inspired Foster, whose career was launched by songs he wrote for blackface minstrel shows in the 1840s, including “Oh! Susanna.” (Minstrel shows were for decades the nation’s most popular form of commercial entertainment, and lasted into the 20th century.)
The statue was originally located in Highland Park, but was relocated to Oakland in 1940.
The statue weighs about 800 pounds, said Tom Samstag, the city’s acting supervision of construction, who led the removal effort Thursday.
City crews were initially unsure whether and how the bronze was secured to its 4-foot-tall granite pedestal. The crew of about 10 – including ironworkers, heavy-equipment operators a carpenter, and a cement finisher – spent most of its time deciding how to affix the strapping by which the backhoe would remove the sculpture.
At one point, a worker positioning the straps climbed onto the bronze, standing on the lyre laying at Foster’s feet and steadying himself by holding onto the head of the banjo. (The strap around the Foster figure’s midsection was bright purple; another strap, around the bare ankle of the banjo player, served as a safety tether.)
Samstag said it was the first time his crews had moved a statue.
But it turned out the statue was held in place by little but gravity, and it came free quite easily, leaving a bare pedestal reading “Stephen Collins Foster 1826-1864.”
For about 20 minutes, the flatbed bearing it sat parked at the Forbes Avenue curb, leaving the Foster figure to appear to contemplate the early-morning work rush. The granite pedestal, though more compact in shape, might actually prove tougher to move, said Samstag: It is in two pieces, the larger of which he estimated weighed “six or seven tons.”
Despite months of effort to find the statue a new home, city officials have not yet found any takers. McNulty said those efforts will continue.
The statue's granite pedestal was removed by 8:30 a.m, according to McNulty.