Often referred to as a “forgotten hero,” Octavius Valentine Catto will not be pushed aside in Philadelphia, where the inspirational history-maker will soon overlook the city from two different spots.
Following in the footsteps of the new Catto statue unveiled last September at City Hall, a fresh mural is headed for the facade of the Universal Institute Charter School in South Philadelphia.
Catto was a civil rights activist who was assassinated at 32 while defending black citizens’ right to vote. The 6,000-square-foot design will use layering elements intended to provide a composite of the different phases of his life.
“We use art to capture history and to teach history, to shine a light on people who’ve made a huge impact on our life,” says Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Sometimes these people get left out of textbooks, like Catto, but they don’t need to be left out of our lives.”
Catto, who settled in Philadelphia with his family in 1848, led a multifaceted life that touched many aspects of the city. Beyond fighting for desegregation of horse-drawn streetcars and for the right to vote, Catto was also a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth as well as a founder of and second baseman for the Negro League baseball club the Philadelphia Pythians.
His story, often absent from modern discussions of civil rights, is one Mural Arts Philadelphia wanted to continue to progress.
“Catto was extraordinary in his courage and conviction, and serves as a role model of someone who was not afraid to use his voice for change,” says Golden. “By visualizing his story, we’re striving to use art as a tool that will not only change the look of a public landscape but also promote social transformation and change.”
Designed, in conversation with historians and scholars, the mural is the work of Philadelphia artists Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Keir Johnston. Humphrey and Johnston have collaborated before, as with West Philadelphia mural Building Brotherhood, part of a larger initiative designed to raise awareness of the challenges faced by male youth and adults of color.
With Catto as the focal point, the mural will also include imagery of other civil rights leaders including Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Forten, Robert Smalls, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Jacob White Jr., and Daniel A. Payne. Interwoven among the historical figures will be scenes representing the original Institute of Colored Youth, the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, voting, baseball, and trolleys. Other topic points include education and slavery, and a map will be drawn depicting Philadelphia and the Mason-Dixon Line.
Together, Humphrey and Johnston will paint the large-scale public piece with the help of 20 men from the Guild, a Mural Arts Philadelphia apprenticeship given to formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults on probation. Many of the students from the Universal Institute Charter School, where the mural is projected to overlook Catherine Street, will also be involved in its creation.
“The mural will serve as an educational component for the kids at the school,” explains Golden. “They’ll be able to make their mark on the project while learning about Catto and gaining an understanding of the tangible mark they’re leaving on the city.”
Work on the project is to begin immediately inside Humphrey and Johnston’s studio. A planned dedication in projected for next fall.