Stephen Foster Monument
Irving Berlin said, “The songs of Stephen Foster …have been a source of inspiration to every writer of popular songs.” After his death in 1864, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine proclaimed, “The air is full of his melodies. They are our national music.”
He wrote over 300 compositions. Twenty six of those as black minstrels- including his best known “Oh Susanna” which sold over 100,000 copies after the 21 year old published it. James Taylor recorded the song in 1970 on his album “Sweet Baby James” and Laura Ingalls Wilder printed a verse from it in her book, “Little House on the Prairie.” His most popular song, however, was “Old Folks at Home” better known as “Suwannee River”, which conveys a sentiment that has almost universal appeal “…yearning for lost home, youth, family and happiness.” His most groundbreaking composition was “Nelly Was A Lady” published in 1849. It is the first known song for the mass market to name an African-American woman as a “lady” and to portray a married African-American couple as a faithful, loving husband and wife destroyed by slavery.
In 1855, abolitionist Frederick Douglass made this remark concerning Foster’s songs “Old Kentucky Home” and “Uncle Ned”, the tunes “can make the heart sad as well as merry and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.”
The design of the sculpture was done by a committee that included Andrew Mellon. The Siena Italy born Giuseppe Moretti was chosen as the artist. Once completed, nearly 50,000 Pittsburghers lined the parade route for the dedication in 1900 and 3,000 school children sang Foster tunes before his daughter unveiled the statue and descendants of President James Buchanan laid a wreath at its base.
In 2000, Mayor Tom Murphy formed a task force to determine the future of the sculpture. In 2017, Pittsburgh’s Art Commission held public hearings and in 2018 it was decided by the commission – by unanimous vote – to remove the sculpture. In a 2010 interview, a Pittsburgh Public School Board member remarked, “It’s just offensive on every level imaginable. It is a mirror of this city’s policy [toward] and treatment of people of color.”
In a special on Stephen Foster produced by PBS for its American Experience audience the network included this statement, “ His [Foster’s] intention was to write the people’s music, using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups …[He] sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another and to convey a sense that all people … regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class – share the same longings and needs for family and home.”