A monument at last for Octavius Catto, who changed Philadelphia

When Octavius V. Catto was only 32, he was gunned down on South Street as marauding whites created havoc on municipal election day in 1871.

Educator, scholar, writer, pioneering baseball player, and fearless civil rights activist,  Catto had fought unflaggingly for an equitable society in the wake of the Civil War. He successfully protested to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolleys, he fought to pass constitutional amendments enfranchising black citizens, and then he worked to bring those new black voters to the polls.

He was rewarded with an assassin’s bullet and erasure from the history books.

But now, more than 140 years after his death, Catto and the values of equity and fairness he sought to make central to civic life are being recognized and celebrated with a major public memorial to be unveiled and dedicated at 11 a.m. Tuesday on the southwest apron of City Hall.

It becomes the first public monument honoring a specific African American on the city’s public landscape. It is also the first monumental statuary to be erected at City Hall since 1923’s John Wanamaker, Citizen, around the corner facing east.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Workers install the Catto statue, the first first monumental statuary erected at City Hall since 1923’s “John Wanamaker, Citizen.”

“We’re hoping the message that this memorial transmits is one that will be understood by people of vastly different persuasions in terms of interests or politics or theology,” said architect James B. Straw, co-chair of the Catto Memorial Fund, the voluntary private group that raised funds for the monument. “This is a story about Philadelphia and a view into our history that has been largely ignored.”

Mayor Kenney believes that history has not only been ignored, it was nearly obliterated.

“I think Malcolm X was right when he was quoted as saying, I’m paraphrasing, that the deeds of black people in this country have been systematically removed, the pages have been ripped out of the history books on purpose,” Kenney said, “If you can’t respect people for what they’ve contributed to the common society, then you can’t respect people who are living here today.

“If you don’t know … about the African American contribution to Philadelphia or the United States, then you can’t mutually appreciate how everybody contributed.”

Officially called “A Quest for Parity,” the monument is the work of California artist Branly Cadet, selected by a jury of artists and art professionals.

“This particular site at City Hall was transformed as a result of the efforts of Octavius Catto and his contemporaries,” said Cadet. “They fought to desegregate the trolley cars. They fought to ratify the 15th Amendment. So the world I live in is very different from the world Octavius Catto lived in.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Artist Branly Cadet watches as workers install the statue he created of Octavius V. Catto at City Hall.

The memorial consists of a 12-foot bronze statue of Catto. Behind him are five granite pillars, fashioned like upturned streetcars. The figure faces a stainless-steel ballot box resting on a broad table. Total cost for the sculpture and extensive site preparation and underground repairs is a little over $2 million, officials said. About $400,000 remains to be raised. Susan Miller Davis served as project manager.

Dedication of the memorial comes at a time that some public monuments around the nation and in the city are facing fierce questions about the values they memorialize and the past they commemorate, particularly regarding the nation’s charged racial history.

The Catto memorial “tells a part of history that we haven’t fully embraced in Philadelphia,” said V. Chapman-Smith, a regional administrator with the National Archives and a board member of the Catto fund. Chapman-Smith sees Catto as a critical national figure in the fight for the post-Civil War amendments.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, bars slavery. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, establishes citizenship by birth and guarantees equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, bars voting discrimination on the basis of race. (Lawful gender discrimination at the ballot box did not end until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.)

Catto is most closely identified with the sit-in tactics he deployed in the fight to desegregate Philadelphia trolleys. His speeches, organizing, and writing were critical in garnering Pennsylvania ratification of the 15th Amendment in particular.

In Chapman-Smith’s view, Catto was a civil rights leader who prefigured the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by more than 80 years. She has been working with the Philadelphia School District on bringing Catto into the classroom, part of an ambitious educational program being developed in conjunction with the memorial.

Camera icon Harper
This portrait of Octavius V. Catto appeared in Harper’s Weekly on Oct. 28, 1871.

It has been a long time coming.

Mayor Kenney started banging the drum for a Catto memorial in 2003, while he was still in City Council. He had been reading about the 19th century Irish boss William McMullen, who bitterly opposed Catto and the effort to bring black men to the polls.

Catto and newly enfranchised blacks were, not surprisingly, Republicans, the party of abolition, Lincoln’s party. Not McMullen’s people.

Kenney said he was amazed he had never heard of such a prominent Republican activist. He did not know that Catto, principal at the Institute for Colored Youth (precursor of Cheyney University), had been gunned down on the streets of the city in racially tinged political violence. Catto’s story was absent from Philadelphia schools. He was not mentioned in textbooks. Catto was an invisible man.

The more Kenney read, the more he thought, “Wow! This is a really interesting story.”

Another lifelong Philadelphian, Carol Lawrence, board chair of the Catto fund, had heard of Catto, but “I didn’t know his story, I didn’t learn about him in school.”

“He was one of many who struggled for civil rights at the time, moving the rights of African Americans forward in a very challenging time,” she said. “We are standing on their shoulders.”

But while Catto was ignored by the official history books, his memory was alive in stories passed on within the black community. For one thing, in 1903, the Octavius V. Catto Lodge of the Black Elks was established. It boasted 3,000 members by 1926.

Joe Certaine, former city managing director and a board member of the Catto fund, said he learned about Catto as a boy. During a boycott and picketing of a nuisance bar in North Philadelphia, Certaine said he was not allowed to walk the line. But as he hung around with older activists, they told him Catto’s story.

Catto, a free black man from South Carolina, taught at the Institute of Colored Youth. He founded the Pythians, a professional baseball team, with Catto starring at shortstop and second base. He joined with Frederick Douglass to recruit black men to fight in the Civil War.

After the war, Catto instigated sit-ins and successfully desegregated the city’s trolleys. Then came his activism on behalf of ratification of the critical post-war constitutional amendments and his efforts to bring newly enfranchised black citizens to the polls.

This story was finally told in 2010, when Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by former Inquirer reporters and editors Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubinwas published by Temple University Press.

“Catto’s always been my inspiration in public life,” Certaine said. “He was so young. His story says, ‘You don’t wait for it. You got to go right at it.’ That’s the way Catto did it.”

(Since publication of this story, several readers have inquired about donations to the Catto fund. Contributions can be made at the Catto Memorial Fund website.)