Philly presents long overdue honor to ‘true American hero’ Octavius Catto

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For the first time in its history, the city of Philadelphia officially dedicated a public statue of an African-American individual.

On Tuesday, the permanent sculpture was unveiled at Market and South Broad streets, to honor Octavius V. Catto, a relatively little-known civil rights activist from the 19th century who accomplished tremendous things in his short life.

He fought for the rights of African-Americans to ride Philadelphia’s trolley cars. He help draft civil rights legislation. As a major during the Civil War, he pulled together a troop of African-American Unionists. He was a college graduate when many black Americans were still enslaved. He was a champion baseball player.

Ultimately, he was a martyr: On Election Day in 1871, he was shot to death on South Street. It was the first election since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and he was on the street urging African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.

On Tuesday, the city shut down a portion of Market Street at South Broad to accommodate thousands of onlookers as a sculpture dedicated to Catto was unveiled. Surrounding the bronze statue of Catto are five granite stones, carved to resemble the silhouette of a trolley car — commemorating his fight to be able to ride one of the vehicles.

“Monuments are not neutral , passive, or accidental. They carry great meaning,” said V. Chapman-Smith, with the Octavius Catto Memorial Fund. “Catto’s life and legacy tells us how our young people in our community are critical to effecting social change. Catto was 16 years old when he started to speak up.”

Unlike many of the city’s sculptures of Founding Fathers and war heroes, Catto is shown young, handsome and in his prime. He is posed in mid-stride with his chest thrust forward, hands outstretched, as though he is about to stride down Broad Street with steely determination.

Sculptor Branly Cadet said the work is as much about the future as the past.

“May the unveiling of this memorial herald a new era of celebration, herald a new era of acknowledgment and understanding, and herald a new era of deep and lasting healing,” he said.

The creation and placement of the sculpture were due, in part, to the determination of Mayor Jim Kenney, who began pushing for the sculpture 15 years ago when he was still a city councilman.

Using the occasion to take a dig at current national leaders, Kenney said Catto embodies important civic values, “as as well the inspiration he provides all of us today as we confront a mean-spirited ugliness and intolerance emanating from our nation’s capital, an intolerance that seeks to divide instead of unite this nation.”

The Octavius Catto Memorial Fund will not dissolve with the erection of the statue. Its president, James Straw, said the fund has started developing educational programs for “exploring, recognizing, and interpreting our unknown histories, our heroes and heroines.”

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