Ideas pour in to replace Pittsburgh’s controversial Stephen Foster statue
They include an abolitionist, suffragette, newspaper editor, entrepreneur, educator, police officer and several musicians — and all are black women.
They’re among a growing list of nominees suggested as subjects for a monument to honor African American women in Pittsburgh that will replace a landmark statue of songwriter Stephen Foster that’s sparked controversy for years. Pittsburgh is planning to move the Foster statue next month and place it in storage while searching for a permanent home in a private location, Mayor Bill Peduto said.
“I find it to be really interesting as I’m learning about people that I had not heard of before as people and friends are sending recommendations,” Peduto said. “This morning, I got (an email) from a school teacher who wants to make it an assignment for her class. … That’s exactly the type of interaction that we’re looking for.”
Pittsburgh has asked the public to weigh in and offer online suggestions for the replacement. The survey so far has prompted nearly 800 responses, according to Lindsay Powell, a policy analyst in the mayor’s office, who is helping to steer the project.
“I think that’s the wonderful thing about this project. I’m learning so much,” Powell said.
But some of the responders have objected to the city honoring black women. Two callers wanted to know why the city isn’t honoring white women, said Keyva Clark, Peduto’s spokeswoman, who took those calls.
“I keep getting all the divisive ones,” she said.
Powell said officials realized while discussing the Foster statue’s fate that among the 168 city-owned public art exhibits, few were dedicated to women and none of them recognized black women.
“I’m interested in learning about great Pittsburghers, and I would hope that people could put any controversy behind them and understand that a major city like Pittsburgh should never be in a situation where there isn’t one recognition of African American women after they’ve contributed so much to the city,” Peduto said.
Some of the names are familiar:
• Pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings of Rosslyn Farms, who performed for decades with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and in 1966 became the first black woman signed to a full contract with a major American symphony orchestra.
• The late Helen Faison, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and became the first black female principal of a school in the city. Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood is named in her honor.
• Gwendolyn J. Elliott, late founder of Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to helping girls living in poverty, and the city’s first black female police commander.
Others have stumped Peduto, a student of Pittsburgh history.
“I didn’t realize that the first (black) woman to head a major newspaper worked for the Courier,” Peduto said.
He was referring to the late Hazel B. Garland, who served as editor-in-chief of the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Other nominees include Daisy Elizabeth Lampkin, who died in 1965, a suffragette and the first woman elected to the national board of the NAACP, and acclaimed East Liberty jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams, who died in 1981.
The Foster statue has triggered controversy because it depicts Foster, who lived in Lawrenceville, standing above what many have described as a black slave strumming a banjo. Critics describe it as demeaning to blacks, while others view it as Foster gaining inspiration from a black musician.
It stands along Forbes Avenue at the entrance to Schenley Park.
“We will have an alternative location where we will safely store it inside until such time that we will find a new home,” Peduto said.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @bobbauder.