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Philly unveils the long-awaited Octavius V. Catto Memorial

It’s the city’s first monument dedicated to an individual African American

The Octavius V. Catto Memorial has been unveiled at City Hall.
Video/Photos by Melissa Romero

After 15 years of planning and months covered under wraps on the southwest corner of City Hall, the Octavius V. Catto Memorial has arrived to the city of Philadelphia.

“This is an austere, but belated homecoming,” said Carol C. Lawrence, chairman of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund, at Tuesday morning’s dedication ceremony.

Hundreds of people filled the streets along the southwest corner of Philadelphia’s City Hall today to witness the unveiling of the city’s first monument dedicated to an African-American individual. It was an emotional and groundbreaking ceremony, taking place at a time when cities and places all around the country question who and what is worthy of a monument.

“After 15 years, it’s hard not to fight back tears today,” said James B. Shaw, president of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund.

Who was Octavius Valentine Catto?

Catto, often referred to as a forgotten hero, was just 32 when he was shot and killed on South Street on election day in 1871 while trying to rally African-American men to vote. Despite his unexpected death, Catto had already made a long list of accomplishments over his short life, including winning the fight to desegregate Philly’s public trolleys and being a fearless advocate for the 15th Amendment, which allowed all men the right to vote regardless of race.

Had his life not been cut short, “one can only imagine what Catto would have further contributed,” said V. Chapman Smith, civil rights historian and vice president of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund.

Mayor Jim Kenney and sculptor Branly Cadet embrace after unveiling the Octavius V. Catto Memorial.

‘A belated homecoming’

Despite Catto’s accolades, his legacy in Philly and the nation has gone largely unnoticed for the past 146 years. It wasn’t until Mayor Jim Kenney, then a city councilman, learned about the activist that he approached the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund about erecting a monument dedicated to unsung hero. That was fifteen years ago.

Kenney wanted to raise awareness about Catto’s unheralded life and efforts; the new monument is only the beginning of that. Said Kenney, “It’s my hope that every child in Philadelphia and American will know as much about Catto as they do about George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Kenney said.

The bronze statue is Philly’s first monument dedicated to an individual African American.

Sculptor Branly Cadet was commissioned to create “A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial,” which would be Philly’s first monument dedicated to a Black American on public land. The site, on City Hall grounds, played a prominent role in Cadet’s creation: He proposed a memorial that highlighted Catto’s political efforts to desegregate Philly’s streetcars and get the 15th Amendment passed in Pennsylvania.

The bronze sculpture features Catto in a powerful stance, mid-walk with his palms and chest facing forward. He is meant to be walking away from the towering granite abstractions behind him that represent an 1860s streetcar. He strides toward the box in front of him, a granite representation of a mid-19th century ballot box.

The monument highlights all of the values that Catto put forth: Respect, growth, fairness, education, uplifting, and civic engagement.

Said Cadet, “May the unveiling of this memorial herald an era of harmony for us all.”

Photo by Melissa Romero