On May 1, 2019 I submitted a proposal package in response to the request issued by the City of Pittsburgh's Arts Commission to relocate and reinterpret the Stephen Foster Statue. I have been actively advocating for the statue since the current debate ensued, specifically for the sake of Uncle Ned. It was removed in April of 2018 for the second time in its almost 120 year history, with hopes that the third relocation will be a charm.
As Founder and President of the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society of Pittsburgh and Cultural Center, I am leading the ONLY local proposal to keep the statue within the city limits - which has been a part of Pittsburgh since 1900. On behalf of the community-at-large, I would like to propose for the relocation of the Stephen Foster Statue to Hazelwood, a place that is historically connected to Foster's life and musical career. Not only is Foster historically connected to Hazelwood, but Hazelwood has its own history of racism. This history is being confronted as we speak through diversity dialogue and community conversations. We feel that the statue and its reinterpretation can be an aid in effecting change in the neighborhood. Many community residents and stakeholders stand with me on this issue, with some providing letters of support.
The story of Pittsburgh, but more specifically Hazelwood's historic past, cannot be fully told without the mention of Stephen Collins Foster, who is considered to be the father of American popular music. The John Woods' House of 1792, perhaps the oldest residence in Pittsburgh, is the place where a few of his famous tunes were composed. Foster spent many a day entertaining at the Hazel Hill Estate on the Scotch Bottom Farm owned by the Woods' Family in the 1840s. It was at the tenant's farm house on Tullymet Street in Hazelwood, when Mrs. Woods' black servant poked her head in the door. This so interested Foster that he asked, laughing, who she was. "Why, that's Nellie Bly," replied his hostess. In a flash a thought came to the composer and he began to write a sort of love song in her honor. Other songs were composed here in Hazelwood including, "Sadly to Mine Heart Appealing," and "Where is Thy Spirit, Mary?" Both songs were dedicated to women in the Woods Family.
As an African-American descendant of slavery, I can also offer a unique perspective and speak specifically to the black experience, which was missing from the former installation. I see a symbol of hope for humanity - the first African American figure to be on public display, which I do not believe was an inclusion rooted in oppression, but an attempt to give credit where credit was due. Foster certainly did draw inspiration from the banjo, which was derived from the African instrument "akonting." A slave, like Old Uncle Ned, would have been a master at not only playing the banjo, but having the know-how to build the instrument. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by enslaved blacks in the United States, adapted from African instruments of similar design. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African-American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In the antebellum South, many black slaves played the banjo, inadvertently teaching their white masters and families how to play. Foster interacted with blacks, listening to stories, ultimately being inspired by their music, and culture. That's why he wrote about it so often in his songs. He was just a messenger of the times, reporting through lyric, the joys and pains of the black experience in the mid-1800s.
The statue will be used for educational and cultural purposes, as a teaching tool. It will be reinterpreted and renamed to include Foster's inspiration more prominently, Uncle Ned, and his contributions to American popular music. It will feature appropriate signage to aid in its historical contextualization and interpretation. An example of a new inscription to be added in the reinstallation:
"STEPHEN FOSTER, KNOWN AS THE FATHER OF AMERICAN MUSIC, WAS INSPIRED BY THE CULTURE OF ENSLAVED AFRICANS. THE STORY OF OLD UNCLE NED WAS PASSED DOWN FROM ORAL TRADITION AND PUT TO MUSIC BY FOSTER. FOSTER CERTAINLY DID DRAW INSPIRATION FROM THE BANJO, WHICH HAS ITS ORIGINS IN THE AFRICAN INSTRUMENT CALLED "AKONTING." UNCLE NED IS APART OF THAT WHICH REPRESENTS THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH. THE SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE WAS A CONSTANT THEME IN FOSTER'S MUSIC. THESE REFLECTIVE TRUTHS GIVE WEIGHT TO THE APPRECIATION AND APPROPIATION OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN POPULAR MUSIC. THIS SAME APPROPIATION HAS BEEN REPEATED OVER GENERATIONS, FROM JAZZ, TO ROCK 'N ROLL, AND MOST RECENTLY HIP-HOP..."
The relocation would be a part of the restoration and repurpose project at the Historic Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Hazelwood Branch (1899), just a block and a half away from the John Woods' House. The site will house a museum celebrating Hazelwood's rich legacy, with the newly-christened "Stephen Foster and Uncle Ned Inspiration" Statue.
It is important to keep our history, just the way it is. We cannot change what has happened, but only reflect upon it - learning from its lessons or we'll be doomed to repeat it. It is the reinterpretation of the statue that is most crucial. This is an effort to confront any and all forms of hatred by creating an atmosphere of fresh and healthy diversity dialogue. We may not agree on all of the factors surrounding the statute, but my hope is that you support me and my efforts to make a positive change in our community, and our city - reverberating all over the country.
Together, we can create a new narrative, flipping the script to give Uncle Ned the credit he deserves. We will rewrite the headline of "America's Most Racist Statue" as the "Statue that Changed the History of Racism."
"Keep the Historic Stephen Foster and Uncle Ned Statue in Pittsburgh!!!"
This is not about condoning slavery or any form of racism, but the purpose is to turn a perceived negative into a positive change. We can not simply hide away our painful past - this only gives power to evil. I am asking for your help in changing the narrative so that it can give credit where credit is due - and that credit goes to Uncle Ned! That is what the statue depicts - Foster being in awe and inspired by Uncle Ned's banjo playing as he looks down at his beautifully written plantation melody called, "Old Uncle Ned."
I have had the pleasure of studying Mr. Foster for over a year and stand strongly convicted in my beliefs. If anyone has a question I'm sure I have the answer. We can not place the blame of systemic racism on Foster alone. He was the first person to put the joys and pains of the black experience into song, which imparting humanity and dignity to enslaved people. As an African-American and descendant of slavery, I speak from a deeply sincere place. Trust and believe! First and foremost, a healing and forgiveness of the painful parts of our past is very much needed - along with a real willingness to confront the hidden and unhidden truths of history. I keep hearing about reparations, but many black people are reluctant to learn their historical truths or do not have access to gain a better knowledge of self.
When we remove Foster, we take with him Uncle Ned, who is a part of Black History - American History. Uncle Ned was the first black figure to be on public display in the United States. This significance is often overlooked. My hope is to celebrate Uncle Ned and the culture in which we both represent. Let us be the change we wish to see in the world. I am doing my part to provide racial reconciliation. The main objective of my work is to bring people together, not to find ways to divide us.
Thank you all for your help and especially for being a part of the solution!!