Stephen Foster Statute Stirs Debate

Thursday, July 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — For 100 years, a statue of Stephen Foster in his hometown has portrayed the 19th century songwriter sitting with a slave at his feet.

Residents are now calling for a makeover for the statue which they say is an offensive relic of a time when racism was widely accepted.

Robert Perloff, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business, said he cannot control his embarrassment of the city-owned statue, first erected in 1900 to honor the composer of ``Camptown Races'' and ``Oh, Susanna.''

``I am offended by a man sitting at the feet of another man,'' said Perloff, who is white.

Deane L. Root, curator of the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh, said few white people saw anything offensive about a slave sitting at a white man's feet at the turn of the 20th century.

``The message of the statue is different in 1900 than it is today,'' he said.

Both Perloff and Root would like to see a placard placed at the statue's site, explaining that many today would be offended by the image in the statue and Foster's lyrics.

Perloff wants Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy to start a task force to determine the wording on the proposed placard. Murphy spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said the mayor was out of the office Wednesday but might consider the proposal.

Foster wrote ``Uncle Ned'' in 1848 in what he believed to be black dialect — lyrics Root says would be thought of as vulgar today. Music historians, however, consider the tune to be one of the first anti-slavery songs. The man portrayed in the statue is supposed to be Uncle Ned, a blind, bald, toothless slave.

People walking past the statue had differing opinions on its racial overtones.

Suzanne Boynes of Pittsburgh said the statue reflects racial attitudes of the turn of the century.

``This is history. What is so wrong?'' said Boynes, who is white. ``People used to have slaves.''

Others found it offensive.

``I don't believe in destroying history. History should be explained,'' said Esther Bush, who is black and believes a placard is a good first step.

``The statue is not attractive and should be offensive to whites and blacks,'' she said.


On the Net:

More on Foster: