Editor’s note: This article first appeared at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Last weekend I overheard two recent grads (both musicians) discussing America’s greatest composers. The usual names were raised: Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein, Sousa … Foster.
“Who?” said one.
“Stephen Foster,” replied the other.
Only one knew who Foster was, and neither knew he was from Pittsburgh. Both, ironically, recently spent a lot of time in Oakland, where the Stephen Foster statue once stood outside the Carnegie.
That statue, depicting Foster above a banjo-strumming Black man, representative of his song “Uncle Ned,” was removed in April 2018 after a contentious debate. The massive statue designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti in 1900 was hauled away one morning to a “city facility” somewhere in Highland Park.
“So, who was he?” the one young person asked.
I shared what little I knew, which had developed slowly as I passed that statue countless times during my years at Pitt. The Pittsburgh native composed songs like “Oh! Susannah” and was an early master of marketing pop music.
I tried to explain what people found offensive about Foster, the statue, the “Uncle Ned” character. (My limited understanding is that Ned was a fictionalized slave in what some say was an anti-slavery song.) This turned into a teachable moment. In fact, that’s the task of all of us: to teach these things. You learn about past mistakes to avoid repeating them.
Consider Confederate statues.
I’ve always detested the Confederacy and how it ripped apart this nation in the attempted preservation of an evil institution. I’m a native Pennsylvanian, a Union guy, a truly Lincoln Republican, great-great-grandson of the local Flinn family that fought Stonewall Jackson. I teach students that slavery was an abomination that violated all precepts of basic dignity and humans created in the image of God.
And yet, as a historian, I want these things to be learned. I don’t know why people can’t turn them into teachable moments. I’ve written content for museum exhibits of historical figures. At the base of these statues, there should be descriptions detailing the crucial, painful history that must be remembered.
Of course, what started with Confederate generals has now extended to statues of Union generals, even Ulysses S. Grant, who (ironically) defeated the Confederacy before battling the KKK and fighting for black Americans’ right to vote. Now targeted are everyone from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to St. Junipero Serra to even Lincoln himself and all of Mt. Rushmore.
What outrages me is the selectivity — namely, those exempted from outrage.
I’ve written incessantly about Margaret Sanger, her racial eugenics, the “Negro Project,” her May 1926 speech to the women’s chapter of the Silverlake, N.J. KKK. Black pastors have complained about her bust at the Smithsonian. And yet, as founder of Planned Parenthood, she’s an icon to liberals. Her memorials remain untouched.
Currently, we’re focused on race, but what about allegations of how certain icons mistreated women, from Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin to John F. Kennedy and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
We’re all flawed, we’re all sinners.
Here’s my proposal: If you want to go down this road, then be willing to take them all down, from Jefferson to Sanger, from Columbus to the 16-foot-tall bronzed Lenin in Seattle. If we’re going to do this, do it equally.