If your Social Studies textbooks were authored in Texas, you may not have heard of Octavius Catto, a 19th century Philadelphian activist who Mayor Jim Kenney wants the nation to know. After years of lobbying that began when Kenney was a city councilman, Philadelphia finally unveiled Catto’s statue, “The Quest for Parity”, Tuesday, 6ABC News reports. This is the first African-American statue at City Hall.
“Octavius Catto was a true American hero. Like many unheralded black American heroes, he should be revered and recognized. Their lives and accomplishments should be part of the curriculum of our schools, not just during the shortest month of the year,” Mayor Kenney told the crowd gathered for the unveiling. Catto spent a relatively short life fighting for equal rights for African Americans. The Civil War veteran was known for his contributions to education, sports, and civil rights.
Catto was a freeman born in South Carolina, but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was a child. He was the valedictorian at Cheyney University (the nation’s first HBCU that was then called the Institute for Colored Youth) in 1858 and began working there as an English and math teacher. During the Civil War, he served in the Pennsylvania National Guard and recruited more Black soldiers for the Union Army. A talented athlete, he “establish[ed] Philadelphia as a major hub of the Negro Leagues” and fought to integrate the sport in the late nineteenth century. America still hasn’t caught up to Catto’s vision of universal equality, which included voting rights for African Americans. It was the latter vision that cost Catto his life. He was shot dead by “Irish-American ward bosses” on the day he saw the fruits of his activism– the first Election Day after the ratification of the 15th Amendment allowed Black men to vote. He was only 32 years old.
Catto’s statue is the first public sculpture added to City Hall since 1923. “The Quest for Parity” stands yards away from a controversial statue of racist former mayor Frank Rizzo.