Today a statue of 19th-century civil rights activist and teacher Octavius V. Catto was unveiled outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall. The 12-foot-tall bronze is at the center of a memorial that honors his extensive contributions, from rallying for the desegregation of street cars, to establishing African American baseball clubs. Emblazoned on granite pillars shaped like upended trolley cars are selections from his words: “There must come a change … which shall force upon this nation … that course which Providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of … peoples.”
Catto was killed on October 10, 1871 at the age of 32. It was the eve of the first Election Day in which he would have the right to vote, thanks to the 15th Amendment. An outspoken activist for the ratification in Pennsylvania of the amendment, which gave men the right to vote regardless of race or “previous condition of servitude,” he was shot three times on the street near his home. As the Philadelphia Tribune reported, there are over 1,700 public statues now in the city, but this is the first dedicated to an individual African American figure. It was designed by sculptor Branly Cadet, with support from the city and the Catto Memorial Fund.
Mayor Jim Kenney stated, as reported by NBC, “We know more about Rocky — who’s not even a real person — than we know about Octavius, which says a lot.” Indeed, in 2007, when a new tombstone was installed for Catto, its epitaph began with the words: “The Forgotten Hero.” Dan Biddle, co-author of Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America, told NPR last month that many 19th-century activists were forgotten in the violent era of Reconstruction, but “the beauty of this moment is this statue is a chance to change that and to get this story told and taught.” Notably, the new monument at City Hall is not far from the statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a recent source of controversy due to his racist legacy.
“My goal was to create a design in dialogue with the magnificent and historically important site that is Philadelphia’s City Hall,” Cadet stated on the Catto Memorial Fund site. “I wanted to immerse viewers in a visual drama that celebrates a great man of unquestioned courage and service, whose young life was lost in defense of one of our most precious rights — the right to vote.”
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