Octavius V. Catto is still teaching the children.
More than 140 years after the 32-year-old civil rights activist was assassinated on South Street while defending the right of black citizens to vote, Catto continues to inspire a new generation, said children, parents, and teachers gathered Tuesday for the unveiling of a Catto memorial.
They were among the hundreds who converged on the southwest apron of City Hall for the ceremony celebrating Philadelphia’s first public statue honoring a specific African American.
“We have statues that actually represent peace and what people can do,” said Temidayo Bambe, 13, an eighth grader at St. Peter’s, an independent school in Society Hill. “It’s actually pretty cool, I’m not going to lie. It’s kind of inspiring.”
His friend Drew Cohen, 13, agreed: “It’s a great first step for recognizing more people who made a contribution to history — not just the city’s history, but the world.”
For a long time, Catto’s story had been left out of many classrooms and history books. Catto was a star baseball player who founded the Pythians, a professional baseball team; an educator who taught at the Institute for Colored Youth, which became Cheyney University; an activist who fought to desegregate the city’s trolleys and bring black citizens the right to vote.
Students said it was empowering and inspiring to see Catto be recognized and celebrated. Teachers said they hoped their students would gain a fuller understanding of history and their place in it. Parents said they want children to learn their own power, their own ability to contribute.
“He’s a Philadelphian,” Rhonda Ryan, 46, said of Catto, holding her 5-year-old son, Myles Clay, on her shoulders. “And he represents him. Finally.”
Myles loves trolleys, Ryan said, so she taught her son about Catto’s fight to desegregate the streetcars. As Myles grows up, Ryan said, she would be able to use Catto’s story — and the statue all can see in the middle of the city — as “an ongoing teaching moment.”
Anyae White, 16, said seeing the statue was an important moment for her because black students need to learn about their culture and history. A 10th grader at Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, White said she is surrounded by black people and culture at school. But in Center City, “most of the time we come down here and see white statues.”
In school, White said, the students thank their ancestors, recognizing the accomplishments and importance of those who came before them. Now a 12-foot bronze statue celebrates one of those ancestors.
“They do come from greatness … and we want them to reclaim their greatness,” said Curtis Davis, 35, the history teacher and servant leader coordinator who brought White as part of a group of about 50 fourth, eighth, and 10th graders Tuesday.
“A lot of our children, sometimes they grow up and don’t really get the full story or the real story of what happened,” Davis said. History honors the Washingtons, the Franklins, the Jeffersons, he said — not the Cattos, usually. Changing the history that is taught can change the students, Davis said: “This experience lets you see that you don’t only have to be a white male to be successful.”