Unveiling of the Octavius V. Catto Statue at Philadelphia’s City Hall

Until about 15 years ago, only the most dedicated scholars of local African American history might have recognized the name Octavius V. Catto.

Born a freeman in 1839 to an accomplished and politically active family in South Carolina, Catto was raised in Philadelphia, where he received a stellar education and graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth as valedictorian of the institution. The school would later become Cheyney University. After distinguished military service, he went on to become a lauded educator and passionate activist. A gifted athlete, he was even instrumental in establishing Philadelphia as a hub of Negro Baseball Leagues activity. In the years following the Civil War, Catto fought tirelessly to achieve social justice and enfranchisement for Philadelphia’s Black residents.

Catto’s accomplishments could fill volumes, but he was particularly known for launching protests that successfully desegregated Philadelphia’s streetcars, as well as a massive local movement to get Black voters to the polls during elections. Sadly, it was these efforts that led to his murder at the hands of a white mob on Election Day in 1871, the first election day in which Philadelphia’s Black community participated. Catto was just 32 years old.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney learned about Catto in 2003, while he was still a City Councilman. Amazed that Catto was not a household name, he began a concerted effort to have a memorial erected in the hero’s honor. Co-chaired by Carol Lawrence and Jim Straw, the Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund (established in 2004) oversaw a nine-year awareness and fundraising campaign that garnered major support and generous donations from organizations such as The Boulé and The Links, Inc., as well as corporations such as PECO and Independence Blue Cross.

In 2013, the renowned sculptor Branly Cadet, creator of the striking Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. sculpture in Harlem, was selected by jury to be the artist for the project. A year later in 2014, the Fund commissioned “A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial.”

Cadet employed his incredible vision and skill to create a 12-foot bronze statue of Catto facing a ballot box on a large table, and positioned in front of five granite pillars in the likeness of upturned streetcars. The memorial was formally unveiled on September 26.

This amazing project will be a constant reminder to the citizens of Philadelphia about the critical importance of exercising the right to vote. 

Lamarr Nanton