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OV Catto strides forward in Philly history

One of the city's pioneering, unsung heroes is finally paid tribute with a new statue.
The new Octavius V. Catto memorial was dedicated in front of City Hall on Tuesday. (Charles Mostoller)

In an era where cities and citizens are pulling down old monuments that don’t represent the current culture, Philadelphia is erecting new monuments to a history that people long to celebrate – but which has been overlooked for literally more than a century.

Octavius Valentine Catto, the Philadelphian civil rights pioneer and Civil War veteran who was murdered at age 32, is the titan memorialized in the city’s newest monument, which was unveiled on Tuesday on the southwest apron of City Hall.

Catto, in a 12-foot-tall, 1000-pound bronze statue by Oakland-based artist Branly Cadet, seems captured mid-stride, tilted forward dynamically with both palms open at his side.

“He’s leaving from one set of challenges to the next,” Cadet, 52, explained of the statue’s pose. “We know that Catto helped to get the 15th Amendment ratified, but it's not clear whether he ever got to vote. So he’s not actually at the ballot box, but he was heading in that direction.”

Catto was gunned down in 1871 at age 32 by a white man, who was arrested but never convicted, during racial clashes related to blacks recently gaining the right to vote.

It is the first statue in Philadelphia which honors an individual African-American to be placed on city land.

“It's a day I thought was never going to come,” Mayor Jim Kenney admitted during his remarks to attendees at the statue’s unveiling on Tuesday morning, calling Catto “an intellectual, an educator, athlete, civil rights activist … and a good neighbor who walked the streets of our great city.”

Kenney said stories of countless black heroes like Catto remain unappreciated in American history.

"Octavius V. Catto is a true American hero – who, like many other unheralded, nameless black American heroes – should be revered, honored and recognized,” Kenney said. “Their lives and accomplishments should be part of the daily curriculum in our schools – not just during the shortest month of the year.”

Catto helped organize black soldiers to fight in the Civil War, and he fought as a major in the Army. He led the movement to integrate Philly’s streetcars in the 1860s, a century before the civil rights movement and clashes in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. And he was an educator at the Institute for Colored Youth who urged the education of former slaves, and many of whose students went on to become prominent teachers.

The open arms of the statute “invite his collaborators from the past, but also future collaborators,” Cadet said.

Cadet also designed the 15,000-pound granite pillars that stand behind the Catto statue, which each bear one of the titles of the roles he played: educator, teacher and leader, and also have related engravings and relief plaques on them.

Those titles are on a reflective surface “to invite the viewer to see themselves in the capacity that’s being depicted,” Cadet said.

Long path to a statue

Calls for Catto’s memorialization in a statue have been made for nearly 150 years, and the $1.6 million project was in development for 15 years.

But Catto was no stranger to waiting. In an 1864 speech at the Institute of Colored Youth, Catto looked forward to a time when equality would finally be achieved.

“How much of the course of this terrible revolution remains yet to be run, or how many political evolutions our government may yet be forced to make, no man can foresee,” Catto said, before uttering the words now written on the side of his memorial:

“There must come a change, one now in process of completion, which shall force upon this nation, not so much for the good of the black man, as for its own political and industrial welfare, that course which Providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of both peoples.”