by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
According to blavity.com, Octavius Valentine Catto will be honored with a statue outside of Philadelphia’s city hall this September. Catto’s statue will be the first monument built to honor an African American erected on public land in the City of Brotherly Love. Although Catto’s memorial has been in the works for years, in the wake of the push to take so many Confederate statues down across the nation, the timing for this statue’s unveiling could not be better.
In Charleston, South Carolina on February 22, 1839, Catto was born a free black man. Catto excelled at his studies, attending a school for black children in Philadelphia, the Institute for Colored Youth, an institution he later led.
According to phillyvoice.com, in his early 20s, Catto was already an active leader in the African American community. He was a member of the 4th Ward Black Political Club, the Union League Association, the Library Company and the Franklin Institute. He demanded that African Americans fight in the Civil War and helped get their regiments inducted into the war. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, he joined the army and enlisted as a volunteer in defense of the state of Pennsylvania.
Catto was also a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard and played baseball as captain and second baseman for the Pythians, an African American baseball team. He was inducted into the Negro League Baseball Museum’s Hall of Fame.
Beyond being an educator, ball player and a war hero, Philadelphia is celebrating Catto for his local civil rights activism, which went into full gear after he was kicked off of a segregated horse-drawn trolley. He staged a sit-in on the streetcars, refusing to move off of the car. The driver drove the car off of its track and unhitched its horses, unsure how else to get rid of Catto. Catto remained aboard; the other passengers and the driver left him there. Catto also defended several black women who were forcibly ejected from the city’s streetcars, and used a fine levied against his fiancée to drum up publicity for his cause. Finally, in 1867, due in large part to Catto’s pressure, the city desegregated its streetcars.
“In Philadelphia, at that time, you could be wearing a Civil War uniform and not have been able to get on that trolley car,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who has been hoping to bring a statue of Catto to the city since at least 2003, after he learned the story of Catto’s life. “[Knowing this] you realize, this struggle isn’t just a 1960s struggle. It’s a struggle from the beginning of the country.”
Catto also worked to promote the voting rights of African Americans – something that he was murdered for at the age of 32. On Oct. 10, 1871 – the first day that African Americans could vote in America – Catto was reportedly headed to vote, while there were fights breaking out around the city between white and black voters. As Catto walked to his polling place, Catto was shot and killed near Ninth and South streets in South Philadelphia.
Artist Branly Cadet, of Oakland, California, said he visited the city and tried to walk in Catto’s shoes to conjure up a memorial to the man. Cadet said he walked to 7th and Lombard Streets, where Catto attended the Institute for Colored Youth – which became Cheyney University – as well as along Broad Street and down South Street, where Catto’s home was near 8th and South streets.
“I wanted to familiarize myself with his life,” said Cadet, who is also African American. “I walked where he walked… And, I was struck by how very different our experiences – mine and Catto’s life – were.”
Cadet said he designed the statue of Catto to be walking forward, his arms open, showing how Catto was moving toward the future and hoping to evoke familiar images of civil rights activists marching hand in hand together for a cause.
A hero and a martyr, Catto hasn’t been remembered in the same way as Crispus Attucks or Rosa Parks. But Philadelphia plans to correct that. The monument to Catto will be revealed at 11 a.m. on September 26, 2017.