The dream of a monument to Philly civil rights hero Octavius Catto is finally fulfilled

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

 

Putting his grief and outrage aside, Jacob White helped bury his best friend and fearless ally in the cemetery his family owned at 19th and Passyunk in the rural southern end of Philadelphia.

Octavius Catto had been shot dead, murdered by a white man on an October election day in 1871 after the 15th Amendment permitted African American men — finally — to vote. A friend of Catto’s said he died in the “unblushing daylight.”

Camera icon Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia
Jacob White, Catto’s best friend and Philadelphia’s first black public school principal.

For the next 18 years, White tried to raise money to build a monument of marble or bronze to honor his educator and civil rights compatriot. White was the city’s first black school principal and a friend of Catto’s since elementary school, when they ran from the taunts and stones of older white boys.

Nothing was ever built. Philadelphia was not then a city marked by a great many statues of contemporary individuals, and what there were honored only white men — George Washington in front of Independence Hall, William Penn outside of Pennsylvania Hospital, and Abraham Lincoln near the Schuylkill, installed the year Catto died. Just a few.

Jacob White used the word monument, so he may have been thinking just about a plaque, a pillar, something on a tombstone, a bas-relief, perhaps. There doesn’t appear to have been any of those honoring African Americans, either.

On Sept. 26, 146 years after those first efforts to memorialize Catto, a statue of him will be installed on the southwestern apron of City Hall between 11 a.m. and noon.  Mayor Kenney, a passionate admirer of Catto’s, will finish what Jacob White started.

If you do not know about Catto, in addition to the statue of the man, there will be words to be seen as well. They will tell you he helped lead a fight after the Civil War to integrate the horse-drawn streetcars in Philadelphia, succeeded to integrate public transportation throughout the state, and recruited black troops to fight in the Civil War. He played second base and was the captain of the first black baseball team to play a white team, and it happened here in Philadelphia in 1869.

We’d like to think Jake White is smiling somewhere now, happy that Catto is being remembered. But that’s probably foolish. You see Jake White was the teenage boy who confronted a visiting Gov. James Pollock at the Institute for Colored Youth on a spring day in 1855.

The student stood up straight like an exclamation point and asked when the state would confer political rights on its 40,000 disenfranchised colored men? When would Pennsylvania “acknowledge the common brotherhood of her children”?

No, Jake White is more likely wondering why the honor took so damn long.

 Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin  are the authors of “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America” (Temple University Press),  now available in paperback.