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Stephen Foster statue: Wrong place or wrong time?

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Ever since she was a student at Schenley High School in the 1940s, Florence Bridges has hated that Stephen Foster statue in Oakland.

Actually, that's not quite right. If Foster were alone atop the pedestal, Bridges wouldn't be bothered. But at Foster's feet is a barefoot black man in rags, smiling a gap-toothed smile and picking a banjo.

That's "Uncle Ned," an enslaved man who is the title character of one of Foster's songs. Passers-by have to figure all that out for themselves, though. There's no plaque.

Bridges, 72, only three generations out of slavery, doesn't need a plaque to decipher the monument's meaning. To her, it couldn't be more plain:

"This will be the permanent configuration of our community -- white supremacy and black suppression."

That's a conclusion one could draw. Even Deane Root, the nation's foremost Foster scholar and director of the Center for American Music across Forbes Avenue from the statue, has written "the statue does indeed misrepresent blacks." Root also believes it misrepresents Foster. But that doesn't mean he thinks it should come down.

Rather than cover up the historical record and hide or ignore the attitudes of times past, Root has argued, we ought to explain Foster better. It's perhaps ironic that "Uncle Ned," published in 1848, was the first of Foster's songs in which audiences recognized anti-slavery sentiments.

An explanatory plaque isn't much to ask, though it's not likely anyone is going to knock off a succinct description of this man and this statue in an afternoon. I wrote about all this a decade ago, and talked to Bridges and Root then. In the years since, the bronze statue, unveiled in Highland Park in 1900 and moved to Forbes Avenue in 1944, has turned a funkier green, but that's been about the only change.

"It must be terrible," said Bridges, "because now it's getting on white people's nerves."

She was referring to a recent piece in this newspaper by Robert Perloff, a distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh. Embarrassed by the statue, Perloff suggests an explanatory placard to put the piece in context.

With the city embarking on a systematic cleanup of its statuary, the suggestion is timely, though it's not as if there's a groundswell. An unscientific poll by the New Pittsburgh Courier this month found most people have never even noticed the bronze Foster or his fictional accompanist. They've managed to fall into obscurity, hiding in plain sight.

Though Foster was bigger than Christina Aguilera in his day, not many kids sing songs with doo-dahs in them anymore. I suspect that on a list of locals' favorite monuments, Foster's would finish well behind Roberto Clemente, Art Rooney and Dippy the dinosaur.

Yet Foster is the man whose old man founded Lawrenceville in 1814. Did you know that? William Foster named it for Capt. James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812. It was a publicity stunt, as if someone named one of those new developments off the Parkway North "Schwarzkopfville" or "Powellville" after the Persian Gulf war.

Place names, like statues, are the products of their time. Yet what nobody has been able to explain is why, 100 years ago, Old Uncle Ned was chosen to sit at the feet of his creator. Of the hundreds of songs Foster wrote, only 23 have Southern themes. So why did the sculptor, Guissepe Moretti, choose Ned over, say, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair?

The answer belongs on a plaque, though Bridges thinks she has an even better idea: Move the statue to the lobby of the Foster Memorial across the street.

"It's probably so heavy it would go through the floor so it would end up in the basement," she told me with a delicious laugh.

While that plan might have flaws, it has the makings of a great folk song.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com.

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