Right now is a time in our history when a lot of commotion is being made over public statues, and the people we choose to honor with them. In Philadelphia, the past few months have seen outcry over a statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo, whose history with social justice was messy at best. Rizzo’s statue near City Hall has long been a hot button topic, but the subject resurfaced as part of the national conversation on the removal of Confederate statues from cities in the South. Now, a new statue in Philadelphia honors an African-American activist and hero whose name has all but been erased from history.
Activist Octavius Valentine Catto worked tirelessly for voting rights for black men following the Civil War. He was a key player in the ratification of the 15th Amendment in Philadelphia. Philly.com gave this short, poignant biography of the man: “Educator, scholar, writer, pioneering baseball player, and fearless civil rights activist, Catto had fought unflaggingly for an equitable society in the wake of the Civil War. He successfully protested to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolleys, he fought to pass constitutional amendments enfranchising black citizens, and then he worked to bring those new black voters to the polls.” On the first Election Day that African American men could vote, October 10, 1871, Catto was assassinated by Irish-American mob bosses.
The statue of Rizzo has been nearly two decades in the making. Mayor Kenney has said that he can’t believe such an influential activist is not better known, and has been fascinated by Catto since he first heard of him fifteen years ago, when Kenney was a member of the city council. Kenney has been working all that time to encourage the building of a monument to Catto. There are 1,700 public space statues in Philadelphia, which is a higher number than can be found in any U.S. city. Tuesday’s unveiling of Catto’s statue makes his the first one for an African American in the City of Brotherly Love.