Crews remove controversial Stephen Foster statue in Oakland
Pittsburgh’s monument to native son Stephen Collins Foster has returned to its old stomping ground.
A Department of Public Works crew removed the controversial statue of the Antebellum songwriter known as the father of American music early Thursday from Forbes Avenue in Oakland and hauled it by flatbed truck to a facility in Highland Park. The city will store it until officials find it a permanent home.
The 1,000-pound, 10-foot-high bronze statue stood at the entrance to Oakland’s Schenley Park for 74 years after the city moved it from its original location near the entrance to Highland Park to prevent vandalism.
“The only thing that was unexpected was it went smoother than we thought,” said Tom Samstag, a public works manager who supervised the removal.
Workers started just before 7 a.m. and had the statue off of its 4-foot granite base and on the truck by about 7:30 a.m. They attached the bronze to a backhoe with nylon straps and lifted it without incident. The statue was not fastened to its base.
“We weren’t sure how it was attached, or if it was attached,” Samstag said. “As you can see, it wasn’t.”
He said it might have originally been fastened through two holes in the base, but workers found no bolts when they inspected the holes with a miniature camera. They also hauled the heavy base consisting of two solid granite slabs to storage.
The statue had stirred controversy for years because it depicts Foster standing with a black man playing a banjo at his feet. Critics have described it as racist and demeaning to blacks. Others have argued that it depicts Foster gaining inspiration from a black musician.
City art commissioners in October voted unanimously to relocate the statue by the end of April.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has said he wants it moved from city-owned property to private property with public access. The city has yet to find a taker, the mayor said on Wednesday.
Yesica Guerra, Pittsburgh’s public art and civic design manager, said she and public works officials had been planning the move since October and visited the statue several times to map out a safe route.
“I was confident that the Department of Public Works would be able to do it,” she said.
Leading Pittsburghers selected the statue’s design and commissioned artist Guiseppe Moretti to create it. It was dedicated with great fanfare in 1900.
The Art Commission in 1944 approved its move to a more prominent location outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland after it had been vandalized several times.
The city plans to replace the statue with a memorial to black women and has scheduled public meetings to gather suggestions before deciding on a theme.
Foster, who was born in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1826, wrote more than 200 songs, including such time-honored favorites as “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.”
While some of Foster’s songs contain graphic, derogatory depictions of slaves, he is credited with being among the first musicians to dignify and humanize blacks through his songs.
He died at age 37 on Jan. 13, 1864, in New York City with 38 cents in his pockets and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or on Twitter @bobbauder.