Octavius V. Catto; Educator, Activist and First African-American Hero to Be Honored with a Monument in Philadelphia
September 27, 2017
On Tuesday, September 26, 146 years after his death, Octavius V. Catto stood tall as a crowd of hundreds gathered at Philadelphia’s City Hall to view the unveiling of a monument in his honor. The memorial for the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) 1858 alumnus, educator, scholar, civil rights activist, and athlete is the first of over 1,700 statues on public land in the city to be dedicated to an African-American.
Upon learning of Catto, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney felt compelled to educate the city and others of his heroic life and work. The efforts led Kenney and the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund to spearhead a 15-year crusade to build a memorial in Catto’s honor. In the end, sculptor Branly Cadet was commissioned to create the visual narrative, now known as “A Quest for Parity.”
“My hope is that someday, every child in Philadelphia will know as much about Octavius Valentine Catto as they do about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Martin Luther King," said Kenney during his keynote address at the event.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1839, Catto migrated to Philadelphia after his mother’s death. He graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth as Valedictorian. He later became a highly regarded educator and Principal of the boys department at the institute.
While in his 20s, Catto rose to prominence in Philadelphia through his work to fight for the betterment of education for black students and efforts to recruit black soldiers to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. Catto himself served as a Pennsylvania National Guard. He also advocated for the desegregation of the city’s trolley cars and rallied for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in Pennsylvania, which granted black men the right to vote.
Catto was also a talented baseball player and founder and captain of Negro League baseball team, The Pythians.
Catto’s life work ultimately brought about his untimely death. On October 10, 1871, the first Election Day that blacks were allowed to vote, the 32-year-old was shot and killed, as a result of Election Day violence from those that aimed to destroy the black vote.
Catto’s legacy is now celebrated via the 12-foot bronze statue that watches over the southwest corner of City Hall. Other sculptural elements seen at the memorial include, a ballot box and granite pillars that represent trolley cars. Both the pillars and ballot box are engraved and adorned with text and images that represent the accomplishments of Catto.
It is Kenney’s, Cadet’s and the members of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund collective hope that the new monument will educate a new generation of Catto’s patriotic work.
“In this design, I have endeavored not only to celebrate the life of Octavius Catto, but also the values that Catto and his peers embodied so brilliantly: respect, growth, fairness, education and civic engagement,” said Cadet.