The recent discussion of the Stephen Foster sculpture in Oakland raises much-needed questions, such as: How should we deal with race and racism in public art? What is cultural appropriation and who should be honored in our public spaces?
We should also be asking: Where are all the women, especially women of color?
Public art reflects the values and priorities of its historical moment. When most of Pittsburgh’s pedestals were erected to celebrate figures such as Stephen Foster, women had almost no economic, political, or social rights. And women of color often faced the triple burden of searing race, gender, and class oppression. Nevertheless, they resisted and persisted, leaving their mark on nearly every institution in the city.
It’s long past time to recognize the women who shaped Pittsburgh’s history as leaders, thinkers, and artists. By highlighting the achievements and contributions specifically of women of color, we can center the experiences of those most marginalized in our culture.
Here are seven remarkable women who are ready for their statues in the Steel City. Who else would you add?
Catherine Delany (1822-1894), Abolitionist. Many people have heard of Martin Delany, founder of Pittsburgh’s abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery, who went on to co-author The North Star with Frederick Douglass. But Delany’s wife, Catherine Delany, was also involved in the work. A mother of seven, Catherine helped to secure agents in other cities to sell subscriptions to the paper and conducted fundraising in the community to support the work. She also helped feed homeless families in Pittsburgh after the great fire of 1845 that burned much of the city.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919), Entrepreneur. After losing her hair to a scalp condition, Walker invented a line of African-American hair care products. A strategic and savvy business owner, she traveled the country giving lectures and created a beauty and body-care empire. During the years she lived in Pittsburgh she operated a factory and beauty school. An extraordinarily successful entrepreneur, Walker was one of the country’s first women to become a self-made millionaire and was also known for her philanthropy.
Dr. Jean Hamilton Walls (1885-1978), Educator, leader. Jean Hamilton Walls was the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1910 after studying mathematics and physics. She earned a master’s degree from Howard University and taught school in Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia before returning to Pittsburgh to be the Executive Director of the YWCA Centre Avenue branch. She went back to Pitt, becoming the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from that university.
Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962), Singer. Mary Cardwell Dawson founded the Cardwell School of Music in Homewood, and operated the Cardwell Dawson Choir, which toured nationally. Barred by white racism from opportunities in the professional music world, she founded the first Black opera company, the National Negro Opera Company, and trained scores of talented artists. Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), and President Kennedy appointed her to the National Music Committee.
Dr. Selma Burke (1900-1995), Artist. An artist of the Harlem Renaissance and a student of Henri Matisse in Paris, Selma Burke came to Pittsburgh in 1968 as sculptor in residence at the Carnegie Institute. She taught tens of thousands of African-American children in the city and opened neighborhood art centers, including the Selma Burke Art Center. She presented her bronze relief, Together, of an embracing black family, to the Hill House in the Hill District. Her most famous work is the sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which became the model for the image used on the dime.
Dr. Helen Faison (1924-2015), Educator. Helen Faison had a remarkable career in Pittsburgh’s public schools, eventually becoming interim superintendent in 1999, the first African-American in the position. She was the first woman and first Black high school principal in the city. Faison also served as assistant and then deputy superintendent for the district, which in 1970 was the highest administrative post held by a woman. She earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and later became a professor at Chatham University, where she chaired the education department and directed the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute.
Gwendolyn J. Elliott (1945-2007), Police Officer. In 1976, Gwen Elliott was part of the first group of women hired to be Pittsburgh police officers following a precedent setting lawsuit brought by the NAACP and the National Organization for Women. Despite resistance and discrimination on the force, she rose to become the department’s first Black woman commander. Elliott served in the Air Force for five years, retiring as a staff sergeant, and later served in the National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. She helped to found the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, and after she retired from the police force, she founded Gwen’s Girls to support the needs of girls living in poverty.