Honoring life and legacy of Octavius Catto, 19th century civil rights champion

 Catherine Cahill, president and CEO of the Mann Center, is shown with

Catherine Cahill, president and CEO of the Mann Center, is shown with "Octavius V. Catto," as portrayed by Robert Branch. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts has organized a series of concerts, workshops, and educational programs centered around the life of an African-American man from Philadelphia who fought for the right to ride horse-drawn streetcars and play baseball with white athletes.

In 1871 he was shot and killed while mobilizing to get out the black vote.

Octavius Catto was a 19th-century civil rights activist before the phrase “civil rights” was coined.

“He was a sports advocate and an athlete. He loved the classics — Latin and Greek. He was a man of faith,  his father a minister,” said Nolan Williams, director of the new Philadelphia Freedom Festival. “He was interested in America realizing her potential to be all of what the promise of democracy had established. Those are concepts, which  even if you don’t know the name Octavius Catto, you can still identify with.”

Lost to history for almost 150 years, Catto’s time is nigh. The Philadelphia Freedom Festival will include the premiere of a newly commissioned musical composition about Catto, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center on July 19.

This spring, city officials plans to announce a memorial sculpture of Catto to be placed in front of City Hall.

This all comes on the heels of a biography published in 2010, called “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America” by former Philadelphia Inquirer writers Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin.

“We both went to college and never learned anything about that earlier civil rights struggle and all the men and women like O.V. Catto,” said Biddle.

Catto had not been totally forgotten. A fraternal lodge, formed in Philadelphia in honor of Catto, still exists 108 years after its founding. But the legacy of those, like Catto, who fought for civil rights as the Civil War was raging had clearly slipped from popular consciousness.

“As we were writing this, one of our fantasies — this is the fantasy of a lot of authors — is that somebody would make a movie out of this. We saw it cinematically — we even cast it,” said Dubin, noting that Denzel Washington has since aged out of consideration (Catto was killed at age 32). “Now we have a piece of original music being performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a statue. Never in our wildest dreams did we think music, did we think statue.”

The festival also marks a turning point for the Mann Center, which for 80 years (formerly as Robin Hood Dell) has been presenting music in Fairmount Park. This Octavius Catto festival is the Mann’s first effort to go beyond music performances.

“We’ve just embarked on a very ambitious strategic plan, and this is a key cornerstone of our programming,” said president Catherine Cahill. “Recognizing our community, being relevant, being creative and curating — and in some cases commissioning — new works.”

Cahill pulled together dozens of community partners to pull off the festival. The first public event, on Feb. 22, will include choirs and ministers from three churches collaborating on a revival meeting of gospel music and praise dancing at the historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. church.

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