An Overdue Honor
There are more than 1,700 statues on public space in Philadelphia and not one of them is of an African-American.
This will all change next week, however, when a 12-foot bronze statue of Octavius V. Catto is unveiled Sept. 26 along the southwest apron of City Hall, marking the first time a public sculpture was raised at City Hall since the iconic John Wanamaker statue was dedicated in 1923.
Catto was gunned down on October 10, 1871, at the young age of 32, on the eve of perhaps the most bitterly contested mayoral election in the history of Philadelphia. But Catto, an educator orator, civil rights activist and a baseball player packed more into those 32 years than most will in a long lifetime.
Catto was not the typical African-American that Philadelphians, Black or white, were used to seeing. He had fought for and won the battle to desegregate the city’s artery of horse-drawn streetcars, the primary means of transportation throughout the city, in 1867.
A teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), the only school in the city at the time for African-American children to pursue a classical education, he eventually became ICY’s principal and helped transform the school into one of the top performing schools in the city.
The school was later named Cheyney University,
A member of the National Guard, Catto eventually rose to the rank of Major. He was instrumental in raising 11 regiments of Black soldiers to fight in the Civil War. And while it was Jackie Robinson who broke the the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, Catto, a star player for the Pythian baseball team, was petitioning for Black teams to gain entrance to white leagues as early as 1866.
Catto worked feverishly alongside Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists in fighting for the passage of the the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865. He was also instrumental in the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote, although in some places that right was not honored until decades later.
“Octavius Catto has the sense of the possibility of racial integration at a time when the realities of the day were all about segregation and exclusivity and Blacks being demeaned and put aside,” said Fox News commentator Juan Williams appearing in a video titled The Floodgates Open.
Born in Charleston, S.C. in 1939, Catto was the son of William Catto, a slave who earned his freedom and became an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Sarah Isabella Cain. William Cato originally planned to move his family to Baltimore with intentions to eventually move to Liberia to work as a missionary.
However, those plans collapsed when a letter by William Catto was discovered in 1948 by the Charleston Presbytery that they believed threatened to incite slaves to rebel. A warrant was issued for his father’s arrests and the family – Octavius was one of four children – fled to Philadelphia, which was just above the Mason-Dixon Line.
During the late 19th century, Philadelphia became the landing point for many newly freed slaves in search of a better life. However, when they arrived here they did not find the paradise they had envisioned.
But Catto went about his work dutifully and undaunted, playing a primary role in the above-mentioned successes. However, there was resistance to the changes that Catto was fostering in the city and they ultimately cost him his life.
With African-American’s representing the swing vote in the 1871 mayoral election, Catto threw his support behind progressive Republican candidate William Stokley, who was squaring off against Democrat James Biddle.
Tensions had been particularly high among African-Americans and the Irish community, which was particularly resistant to Blacks in the city as their power began to wan, so much so that in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 10 election at least two Blacks were murdered by Irish rioters.
Stokley would win the election but it would come at a cost. Catto became the third victim, shot in the back by a Frank Kelly on the evening of the election. Kelly fled and was apprehended five years later. He was tried, and acquitted, by an all-white jury in 1877.
Catto’s words after the passage of the 15th Amendment inspire and ring with truth to this day.
“There must come a change, one now in the process of completion which shall force upon this nation not so much for the good of the Black man as for our own industrial welfare,” he said.