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Controversial Stephen Foster Statue To Move From Pittsburgh To Museum Exhibit In Los Angeles

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- As the fate of the Christopher Columbus statue in Pittsburgh remains in limbo, another controversial statue is headed out of town.

The statue of Pittsburgh-born songwriter Stephen Foster will be part of a museum exhibit in Los Angeles — alongside decommissioned statues from the Confederacy.

Before it was removed from Oakland, the statue was a lightning rod of controversy. And for the past three years, the city has been unable to find anyone to take it — until now.

Foster was the most famous American songwriter of the 19th century -- born and raised in Lawrenceville -- penning songs like "Oh, Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Hard Times." But a statue of the Pittsburgh-born legend caused hard feelings, which led to its removal three years ago.

"The Foster statue had been branded, at one point, the most racist statue in America. And it was time for it to come down," said Kathryn Haines from The Center for American Music.

The statue depicted a black slave, Uncle Ned, with a banjo on his knee, looking happy with Foster perched above him. And for decades, people in the African-American community found it offensive.

Now in mothballs, Mayor Bill Peduto got a letter this summer from the museum director of the LAXART requesting to display it alongside those removed statues of Confederate generals and others.

"Stephen Foster would be an excellent addition to this exhibition. Though he is not a Confederate figure, Foster played a pivotal role in constructing a romantic vision of the Old South and perpetuated the "happy slave" narrative that is a central tenet of the Lost Cause," the letter said.

The mayor's office supported the loan, last month the Art Commission approved it, and even the head of the Center for American Music at the Stephen Foster Memorial thinks it's a good idea.

"The best place for the statue really is in a museum," Haines said.

Foster was not part of the Confederacy, was on the side of the Union in the Civil War, and those protective of his legacy said he supported the emancipation of slaves. But Haines said his legacy is mixed and will be explored by contemporary artists who will create works to be seen alongside the statues in the exhibit.

"They are not out to demonize Foster, nor am I," Haines said. "Foster wrote some beautiful songs, some of which were used for Abolitionist purposes, but he also wrote some very hurtful songs and I think we must recognize there can be both nostalgia and trauma."

Retired music professor and Foster scholar Deane Root agrees, saying Foster is a mixed bag, and this kind of dialogue about his times and his music is a healthy thing.

The statue is still here in storage but will be making the trip to Los Angeles next year. After that, it still has no permanent home.

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