At the time when historical monuments to Confederate genocidal explorers, leaders, slave owners and other icons of white supremacy occupy the public attention, Philadelphia has erected its first statute of a Black hero in a public space. A slain civil rights activist, baseball player, and educator, Octavius Valentine Catto is among the unsung heroes who was skipped from historical books. In reality, Catto is a perfect example of figures society should canonize and honor.
The statue of Catto was recently unveiled in front of Philadelphia City Hall. The act came nearly 146-years after his death. Although Catto’s contribution laid a turning point for African-Americans, the issues, struggle and challenges that then Black people experienced, are still happening today.
Born in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina, Catto attended the Institute for Colored Youth—that was later changed to Cheyney University. He later became a teacher and principal. Catto collaborated with Frederick Douglass in, recruiting hundreds of Black soldiers to battle for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Catto fought against the city’s majority will, for equal access for Black folks on Philadelphia’s trolley car system. He also played a significant part in the passage of the Pennsylvania state legislation prohibiting segregation in the transit systems. Catto grew to become influential Republican Party insider.
Later, he joined the ‘Pennsylvania Equal Rights League’ to assist in securing the right to vote for the Blacks. His efforts compelled Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment to the American Constitution. Additionally, Catto attended the ‘National Convention of Colored Men’ in Syracuse, NYC, which later formed the ‘National Equal Rights League.’ (NERL)
Headed by Frederick Douglas, the NERL, worked toward enhancing full citizenship rights for Blacks. Catto also held some leadership positions in the ‘State Convention of Colored People’—which happened in 1865, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Catto became Franklin Institute’s member; a center for scientific research and education that had been barred to Blacks. He worked in the Pennsylvania National Guard as well.
A year following the approval of the 15th Amendment in 1870, the city of Philadelphia had the first election in which African-Americans had a right to vote—Oct. 10, 1871. However, during that time, Black voters—then Republican supporters—experienced intimidation and violence from Irish-Americans who dominated the city’s Democratic Party. Catto was harassed by some Irish-Catholic men on Election Day and shot to death by Frank Kelly.
Although Philadelphia had to wait till 2017 to sculpture image of its first Black-American hero, other white icons of ill repute and questionable merit have already stood.