Who Was Octavius Catto and Why Did Philadelphia Dedicate a Statue to Him?

Outside City Hall, a few hundred yards from the sculpture of former Mayor Rizzo, Philly has a new statue dedicated to a civil rights hero Octavius Catto.

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Who Was Octavious Valentine Catto?
nCatto was born on Feb. 22, 1839, in Charleston, South Carolina, to free, mixed-race parents. In 1848, his family moved to Philadelphia after Catto’s mother died. He graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University, as the school valedictorian. He later returned to his alma mater to teach English and math.
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By his early 20s, Catto already was an influential black Philadelphian, serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard during the Civil War and recruiting blacks to serve in the Army. He also was a pioneering athlete, helping to establish Philadelphia as a major hub of the Negro Leagues and pushing to integrate baseball decades before Jackie Robinson would break the sport's color barrier.
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When the Confederate army invaded Philadelphia in 1864, Catto raised a company of black volunteers to join the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. But when the company presented itself to the commanding officer in Harrisburg, their services were turned away. Only white volunteers were accepted.
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Slavery ended in 1865, but exclusion continued in Philadelphia. Catto, a talented baseball player and team captain, petitioned in 1867 for his all-black team to be accepted into the major leagues. They were denied admission.
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Catto met his future wife while teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth. Together, they fought to integrate Philadelphia’s street cars. When a driver refused to allow her to board, his wife obtained a court order against the driver. He was fined the modern-day equivalent of $1,000. The victory was seen as a warning sign by some white Americans who viewed growing equality as a threat to the status quo.
Catto's work advocating for voting rights would ultimately bring about his untimely death. He pushed to get Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for black men. On October 10, 1871 — the first Election Day blacks were allowed to vote — Catto was shot to death on his doorstep by an Irish-American ward boss. His remains were taken to the Institute for Colored Youth, where hundreds of people came to pay their respects.
Why is this important?
nBefore there was Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and even Jackie Robinson, Catto fought for black students to have better access to education, helped desegregate Philadelphia’s street cars and pushed for equal voting rights. The 19th-century educator and activist was killed at age 32. He was a leader in the country’s first civil rights movement.
Why now?
n"We know more about Rocky — who's not even a real person — than we know about Octavius, which says a lot," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who first learned of Catto's story as a young city councilman. "Of course, we all know about Benjamin Franklin and all the things that he did, because we're taught about him. There were scores of these people throughout history, and it's important to understand that there were people other than the Founding Fathers who contributed greatly to this country."
Where can I see it?
nThe statue is located on the southwest apron of Philadelphia's City Hall. Catto's statue stands just several hundred yards from a sculpture of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose complicated racial legacy has led some to argue that his likeness should be removed from city property.
Who's paying for the statue?
nThe Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund commissioned a large-scale work of art celebrating the life and Catto’s legacy. The sculptor Branly Cadet, known for multifaceted public and private sculptural commissions, was selected by jury in 2013 to design the memorial.
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