Art Commission Hears Mostly Critical Opinions Of Stephen Foster Statue: ‘Trivializes Issue Of Slavery’

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — What should happen to the controversial statue of Stephen Foster in Oakland?

Pittsburgh’s Art Commission is getting ready to make a recommendation, and Wednesday night heard from the public.

“It trivializes the issue of slavery,” said one of the speakers, Sean Champagne, a recent Pitt graduate. “It treats it as something that’s folksy or charming. It denies what it actually was – one of the greatest crimes in this nation’s history.”

Speaker after speaker told the commission what they think of the statue of Pittsburgh-born songwriter Stephen Foster. At Foster’s feet, an African American slave playing a banjo.

There’s been debate over the statue several times before.

For many people, it’s racist and demeaning. But others maintain the context of it is misunderstood.

Some say a sign explaining it would help or that it should be moved to somewhere else. Others want it destroyed.

“I really hate that statue,” said Billy Hileman, from Lawrenceville. “I think it’s awful. I think that you should not find any other place for it. I think you should melt the metal part down.”

“It boldly represents the same white man unabashedly claiming black man’s work as his own,” said Delores Dupree, from the Rankin/Mon-Valley National Council of Negro Women.

Only two speakers at the meeting seemed to support the statue staying put.

But the writer of a letter published by the Post-Gazette believes the statue is misunderstood. Jude Wudarczyk, of Lawrenceville, wrote in part: “As far as the statue is concerned, others may see a black man at a white man’s feet. I always saw a downtrodden, poor man teaching a well-to-do man that you can forget your woes through music.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, who asked the commission to tackle the issue, wonders about the statue’s intent when it was made in 1900.

“Was there a commitment to those who were paying for it and putting it together to tell the story of Stephen Foster’s music being able to lead to the writing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” asked the mayor at a press conference earlier in the day.

Mayor Peduto says he favors moving it to a private location with public access, but he also says: “I have an open mind, but I also have a deep concern of censorship in all of its forms.”

While the mayor will make the final decision, he made it clear that he doesn’t feel comfortable making it in a vacuum.

That’s why he says he will rely on the recommendation of the commission and will listen to what the public has to say.

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