Columbus, Foster, Parran: Pittsburgh’s reckoning with historic symbols intertwined with racism

There’s a petition to remove the Christopher Columbus statue in Oakland.

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Pittsburgh's statue of Christopher Columbus in Schenley Park in Oakland, near Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, as seen on June 22. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Among swing sets and slides in Schenley Park in Oakland, there stands a statue of Christopher Columbus. On Friday, June 12, passerbys would’ve seen it covered in red handprints and painted messages: “OG PIG,” “murderer” and “scum.” This wasn’t the first time this Columbus statue had been vandalized.

And as Black Lives Matter protests take place from coast to coast, America has been reevaluating its racist legacy — including monuments to members of the Confederacy and other historic figures whose legacies are associated with racism and oppression. These monuments have been coming down either by the orders of the cities they’re located in or by protesters removing them directly.

Pittsburgh hasn't been immune to the reckoning over symbols of enslavement, genocide and racism. In 2018, residents and students who lobbied for the removal of the Stephen Foster statue saw it pulled from its perch on Forbes Avenue. Months later, the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees voted to rename the school’s Parran Hall. Ultimately, the consensus among many people was that the actions Foster and Parran took were too intrinsically linked with racism and exploitation to allow their monuments to remain.

While the city plans to clean the Columbus statue of the vandalism, some people believe his statue should share the fate of the Foster statue and Parran Hall. Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, explained that any decision regarding the Columbus statue was up to the city’s Art Commission. McNulty said the city has heard from “both sides” — individuals pointing out Columbus’s legacy of violence toward Indigenous peoples and residents who view Columbus as an important figure for Italian Americans. The Art Commission chair has not responded to requests for comment.

The decision regarding the Stephen Foster statue was also in the hands of the city’s Art Commission. After it was relocated, the city promised to replace Foster’s statue with a monument to a prominent African-American woman. The city conducted a listening tour to aid the selection process in 2018, yet, as McNulty explained, the pandemic has stalled the city’s selection process.

Christopher Columbus and his story

Finn Murphy argues that it’s long past time to take the Columbus statue down. Murphy launched a petition about two weeks ago, calling for the Columbus statue’s removal. The  petition has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Not a Pittsburgh native, Murphy came to the city in 2016 to attend Pitt. Murphy remembers being surprised to see a statue of Columbus during a trip to Phipps Conservatory.

“I went there freshman year and it was just kind of surreal to see a statue like, ‘Oh, that’s Columbus,” they said. “I don’t think it really clicked that I could have the power to take it down. It just felt like one of those things where that is bad, but I can’t do anything about it.”

In a climate Murphy believes is more politically aware and willing to change, they feel the statue’s removal is possible.

Murphy told PublicSource that they grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and attended a “very” white elementary school. They recall learning what most children learn about Christopher Columbus.

“So we were taught kind of the standard American Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, that he came to America and met Native people and traded gold for spices, something along those lines,” Murphy explained.

Later in high school, they’d realize that this wasn’t a complete description of events.

“He came here, enslaved Native populations, he raped Native women, you know he murdered people,” Murphy stated.

Murphy added that historians found Columbus had cut off the hands of Native people who couldn’t work enough and introduced a host of diseases to the New World.

“That’s no one we should celebrate,” Murphy said.

In 1500, after successful lobbying from Spanish Colonists, Columbus was arrested by a royal commissioner and sent back to Spain. Although the charges against him were dropped, he was stripped of his governorship.

Murphy said they believe that people cling to Columbus because they’ve been “miseducated” about his history and actions. Since launching the petition, Murphy told PublicSource that many people had reached out via Instagram either claiming that they were ignorant about Columbus or that his actions were acceptable at the time.

“And some of those people I’ve been able to reach compromises with like, ‘Well, if you don’t want it torn down, we could just put it in a museum,’ and a lot of people were cool with that.”

Erasing symbols of oppression

This wouldn’t be the first time the city had to make such considerations. In 2018, after months of debate, the City of Pittsburgh removed the Stephen Foster statue that occupied Schenley Plaza for more than 100 years. Foster, a Pittsburgh native was a songwriter known for penning songs such as “Oh Susanna” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” However, Foster also made his bones in the entertainment industry by writing music for blackface minstrel shows in the 1840s. It’s that legacy, as well as the statue’s depiction of Foster with a presumably enslaved Black man playing a banjo at his feet, that led to decades of criticism and its ultimate removal in April 2018.

An empty space in Schenley Plaza where the Stephen Foster statue once stood. In 2018, after months of debate, the City of Pittsburgh removed the statue. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

During the same year, the University of Pittsburgh faced a controversy stemming from what was once known as Parran Hall. The Pitt building on Fifth Avenue was named after Thomas Parran who’d served as the first dean of the school of Public Health and the sixth Surgeon General of the United States. As a surgeon general, Parran oversaw the Tuskegee Syphilis study, “an infamous 40-year experiment during which hundreds of Black men in Alabama were denied effective treatment for syphilis because researchers wanted to study the effects of the disease on humans who weren’t treated.” Several of the subjects died and many unknowingly passed the disease to wives and children, even though penicillin had been identified as an effective treatment in the late 1940s. Parran was also involved in a similar experiment in Guatemala.

In winter 2018, Dr. Donald Burke, the dean of the School of Public Health, and the Pitt Graduate Student Organizing Committee called on the administration to rename the hall. After research and a discussion process, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Review Committee recommended removing the name on the basis that Parran’s actions were inconsistent with the school’s values. Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher also recommended the name be removed.

“In my view, there is a reasonable likelihood that if the Board knew of Dr. Parran’s involvement in the two studies at issue here, which took place before he was Dean, one could easily conclude that the decision to permanently honor Dr. Parran would not have taken place,” Gallagher wrote before the vote. “Both studies conducted human trials on vulnerable populations without informed consent.”

In June 2018, the Pitt’s Board of Trustees voted to remove Parran’s name from its public health building.

While the matters of the Stephen Foster statue and Parran have been settled, the debate over the Christopher Columbus statue will likely continue in Pittsburgh and its sister city Philadelphia, which holds two Columbus statues.

Locally, Basil Russo, president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, wrote in a statement on the organization’s website that the Italian-American community was disheartened over the removal of and, in some cases, defacing of Columbus statues around the country.

Within the statement, Russo contends that while the organization supports an Indigenous People's Day and social change initiatives, the statement insists Columbus has long been a source of Italian pride, particularly during times in history when Italian-American Immigrants were othered.

“Columbus’s journey launched 500 years of immigration to America, attracting peoples from throughout the world seeking a better life for their families,” Russo wrote. “This is the spirit we champion and are fighting to preserve, and this is what the Columbus statues stand for.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at airvinmitchell@gmail.com and you can follow her on Twitter @AtiyaWrites.

This story was fact-checked by Veonna King.

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