Philly's first public sculpture honoring an individual African American will be unveiled next month
Octavius V. Catto was murdered by whites in the streets of Center City, on Election Day 1871, as he sought to bring the vote to African Americans.
Calls for removal of the Frank L. Rizzo statue at Thomas Paine Plaza in Center City are on the rise.
But whether it stays or goes, one thing is certain: Philadelphia is digging out at least some of its buried history and bringing into the open what had previously been consigned to racial oblivion.
Next month, one of the singular examples of the rediscovered — educator, activist, and ballplayer Octavius V. Catto — will be honored by the city where he was murdered with a full-blown sculptural commemoration in bronze and granite on the southern apron of City Hall.
Amazing to say, Catto will then become the first named African American to be memorialized on public land in the city's history.
"Philadelphia has more than 1,700 statues on public land, which is more than any other city," said Murray Dubin, a former Inquirer reporter and author, with colleague Daniel R. Biddle, of Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. "None of these statues are about named or individual African Americans. None."
(A sculpture of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was unveiled at Mother Bethel last year, and there are statues of sports stars Joe Frazier, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain. But all of these are on private property.)
Susan Davis, former head of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority art program and now a private consultant, said the Catto sculpture — a complex installation designed by artist Branly Cadet — would be unveiled at City Hall at 11 a.m. Sept. 26.
It will be the first public sculpture raised at City Hall since John Wanamaker, Citizen was dedicated in 1923.
Davis said the bronze figure of Catto approaches 12 feet in height. In a semicircle behind the figure are five granite pillars, fashioned like upturned streetcars; while in front, a stainless-steel ballot box rests on a broad table.
These elements allude to Catto's two most successful efforts as an activist. The first was his victorious campaign to desegregate the city's horse-drawn street cars in 1867 — 90 years before Rosa Parks refused to rise from a Montgomery, Ala., bus seat.
The stainless steel ballot box focuses attention on Catto's deadly effort to fulfill the mandate of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing all people the right to vote, regardless of race or "previous condition of servitude." Catto fought successfully for Pennsylvania's ratification of the amendment in 1869.
Incised on the granite are excerpts from his writings demanding change "for the mutual benefit" of all of the nation's people.
Then, as prospective black voters sought to exercise their new franchise in the racially charged election of 1871, Catto was gunned down at Ninth and South Streets, murdered near his home by a white mob. He was only 32.
"He's not in any history books kids in high school and middle school have now," said Dubin. "Nobody knows about Catto. He was an extraordinary, forgotten African American, American hero."
"What it [the sculpture] tells people is that black lives matter, and everything that means has been a fight for more than a century and a half. It's not new. The issues aren't new. … Hearing about Catto reminds you that he died for that fight and that it continues."