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Critics call for removal of Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster statue

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
The statue of Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh's Oakland section.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The statue of Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh's Oakland section.

Speakers at a public hearing Wednesday overwhelmingly called for the removal of Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster statue from public property, calling it racist and demeaning to black people.

The Pittsburgh Art Commission scheduled the hearing to gather information and public comment about the controversial, 117-year-old sculpture of Foster standing over a barefoot black slave wearing ragged clothing and playing a banjo.

Eighteen of the 22 people who offered comment said the statue should be moved to another location.

Four said it should remain in place outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Forbes Avenue in Oakland.

Marshall Goodwin, 62, of Oakland said Foster introduced white America to black music that has inspired musicians for generations.

“Stephen Foster was inspired by this music that he heard, which was totally different than what was being heard in the white community,” Goodwin said. “I don't see this personally as racist. I see this man (the slave) with a big smile making this music that is infectious.”

Critics said the image reflects white supremacy.

Sean Champagne, 25, of Oakland said the statue depicts slavery as “folksy and charming.”

“When I see this figure of (the slave), I see a man who is robbed of his dignity,” he said.

Billy Hileman, 59, of Oakland echoed that sentiment, suggesting the city melt the 10-foot bronze sculpture and turn its granite pedestal into gravel.

“I hate that statue,” he said.

People have been calling for removal of the statue commissioned by leading Pittsburghers in 1900 for at least 30 years, according to Nick Hartley, Pittsburgh's historical archivist.

A fatal August protest in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a Confederate general's statue intensified criticism of the Foster statue.

The commission is scheduled to submit a recommendation on Oct. 25 to Mayor Bill Peduto, who will decide whether the statue will remain in place. Peduto said he believes it should be moved to a private location accessible to the public.

“That's only my opinion,” the mayor said earlier Wednesday. “(The decision) will be based upon the recommendation coming from the Art Commission themselves. I want to see their full report before making a final decision. I want to let every person in the city have the opportunity to speak out.”

Peduto said he is concerned about censorship and wants a fully researched report from the commission outlining the statue's original intent, among other things.

“I don't think that a politician should be in the position of saying certain sculptures should be up, certain art should be performed, certain music should be heard, or that people should even be ordered to stand during certain songs,” he said. “I think that a politician's role in it would be to create a system where there's a fair hearing, where the art, itself, is what is being questioned and not only the emotion around it.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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