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Interest revives in nearly forgotten historic figure

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

One of Philadelphia’s earliest civil rights leaders, nearly forgotten in the swirl of history, is making a comeback. Octavius Catto, a black abolitionist and athlete shot during a race riot in 1871, is the subject of a new biography. A statue may be next.

City Councilman James Kenney had been pushing for a statue to honor Catto for years. He wants to put it on the south apron of City Hall. But just as a request for artist proposals was about to go out, the economy tanked and there wasn’t any funding for it.

Now, as the economy is showing signs of improvement, a thick biography of Catto has been published. Author Murray Dubin of West Philadelphia says in 1865 Catto fought the city to allow African-Americans to ride streetcars.

“Philadelphia, while home to more black residents than any other American city, is also very much the most Northern-Southern city in the nation,” says Dubin. “It’s in many ways a very racist city. Problems with allowing blacks on streetcars is solved in New York prior to being solved in Philadelphia.”

Statues on public land honoring African-Americans are few and far between in the city. There is a piece on Logan Circle honoring black soldiers generally. Over the summer, a small bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled at 40th and Haverford streets.

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