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August 31, 2017

Pitt Committee Offers Expert Insight to City Discussions on Statue’s Future

As City of Pittsburgh officials discuss the future of a statue honoring Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster, a committee of Pitt faculty, staff and students has been working to provide advice, varying perspectives and academic expertise.

Even though the statue is neither Pitt-owned nor on Pitt property, Pamela Connelly, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, created the committee a year ago to study the controversial statue in response to concerns raised by students.

The statue, situated at the entrance to Schenley Park along Forbes Avenue, portrays an African-American man in ragged clothing playing his banjo as the formally dressed white composer sits above.

The statue has long sparked calls for its removal. Connelly explained that a year before the latest public outcry about the monument — which followed the violent protest surrounding the removal of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month — Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion received a report of a couple of student concerns related to the statue.

By bringing students together with faculty from history, art and related disciplines, along with representatives of other concerned Oakland institutions, the committee worked to offer advice to the City of Pittsburgh, which plans to consider soon the statue’s fate.

“The racial imagery is disturbing — it is nearly universally agreed,” Connelly said. “Yet, even within the committee, even with people devoted to history and equity, there was not a consensus on the best course forward. The committee did agree that if the city moves forward, the community should be involved.”

To date, the city has not decided what to recommend among several options, including leaving the statue in place with an explanatory plaque or moving it to a museum.

In any case, Pitt faculty members on the committee agreed that it is vital to distinguish the man from the statue erected in 1900, 36 years after his death, and to understand the artistic and social context of then and now.

Kirk Savage, faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Scienceshistory of art and architecture department, examines the Foster statue in his classes and researches America’s use of public monuments. Savage said there is a need to place the statue in its context: What was the agenda of those who erected it? Who had a voice in that process? What was the resulting representation? How do artistic traditions make us see it, originally and today?

“When it comes to Stephen Foster, there are debates at every level,” Savage said.

Foster penned the first American popular tunes portraying blacks sympathetically, creating a uniquely American music from African and European inspirations, noted Laurence Glasco, history faculty member. His works, however, also sometimes romanticized slavery and used cringe-inducing black dialect, including racial slurs, Glasco said.

The now defunct Pittsburgh Press newspaper campaigned to erect the statue in an era of increased American racism and also employed racial slurs and sought explicitly to represent the appropriation of black music by Foster. Yet the statue also has been seen as depicting the slave as Foster’s muse, or his artistic creation, Savage said.

What’s “totally unambiguous,” he added, is the difference in portrayal of the two men: one intellectual, the other hardly civilized.

“The only reason that was okay in 1900 was that the public sphere was run by white people and it reflected pretty accurately what they wanted to think about the races,” Savage added.

Deane Root, director of Pitt’s Center for American Music, has overseen the University’s Stephen Foster collection since 1982 and has been the recipient of many comments — positive and negative — about the city’s statue through the years.

“It’s a racial image that comes from a generation after Stephen Foster’s lifetime and a century before ours,” Root said, and “is hurtful to us and hurtful to the Foster legacy. He was among the very first to bridge the gap between cultures in this country, which has made the country the great country it is.

“A statue needs a lot of interpretation,” Root added, “and I don’t believe it should be standing there.” The city should aim “not to destroy it, but to place it in places where it can be contextualized.”

Glasco, for his part, always takes his History of Black Pittsburgh course students to the statue on the first day of class. He feels that the statue should stay, as a teaching tool, although it fails in a memorial’s other function: creating community.

“The Foster statue celebrates black music and how it influenced American music,” Glasco said. “It’s part of our past. To me, Foster is listening and learning from this musician. He was not interested in oppressing blacks or keeping blacks in their place.

“A public statue’s optics can be very informative and provocative,” he added. “I think it can put us in touch with our past and generate some conversation.”

Savage, for his part, had hoped public discussion of the statue and its history could aid local race relations. “But that was before Charlottesville,” he said.

“Whether it is removed or not,” Savage said of the Foster statue, “we’re in this crisis – what do we do with all these terrible monuments? I hope there’s still room to think more about the process.”


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 1

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