PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Hundreds packed onto the Southwest apron of Philadelphia City Hall today to witness the historic unveiling of the memorial of Octavius V. Catto. The 19th century civil rights activist, scholar and educator is the first African-American to get his own statue on city owned property.
It was a joyous occasion, at the unveiling of the three-part memorial to Octavius V. Catto, a man who in just 32 years of life changed Philadelphia and the country.
“Hopefully all of us can be inspired by the courage and determination of OV Catto,” Mayor Jim Kenney.
He led the 15-year effort to erect this $2.2 million sculpture, composed of a 10-foot statute of Catto, five pillars shaped like a street car and a reflective ballot box.
Catto’s Great nephew John Smith joined by nearly a dozen descendants of the Catto family, called it a proud day.
“Octavius Catto represents one of many, many heroes forgotten in the history books,” he said.
The Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund was created in 2004 and among his champions is Mayor Jim Kenney, who has been determined to memorialize the South Philadelphia scholar, educator, and athlete. Born in 1839, Octavius V. Catto’s many accomplishments include the successful desegregation of horse-drawn street cars in Pennsylvania, the recruitment of Black soldiers for the Civil War and a get out the vote effort that had black men waiting in line at the polls to cast their ballot on Election Day 1870 as early as 4 a.m.
“I was embarrassed that I had this hole in my knowledge and a little angry that I didn’t learn this in high school or college when I went to school here in Philadelphia,” says Murray Dubin.
He and Daniel Biddle spent decades working at the Philadelphia Inquirer, yet they had never heard about Catto, a man who was assassinated on Election Day in 1871. Both of the men stumbled upon Catto separately and became obsessed. Then they decided to work together, taking seven years to research and write their book Tasting Freedom: Octavius V. Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.
“He was an extraordinary man whose breadth of accomplishment is so hard to believe because when he died he was in his early 30s,” says Dubin.
Catto was murdered near 8th and South Streets as he walked home. His killer was Frank Kelly, a white man who was a political operative working for the Democratic party. At the time, African-American men had won the right to vote thanks to the 15th Amendment, which passed in 1869, and their loyalty was to Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln.
“Catto was probably the best known black political figure at the time of his death,” says Biddle, who notes Catto was murdered “execution style” in front of dozens of witnesses.
His assassin was on the run for years and was brought back to Philadelphia by a Republican in need of the “black vote.” But even after a trial, Kelly walked free.
“I think the legacy of Catto is that even against terrible of odds a small group of people, young or old, can change the world,” says Biddle, “and he did.”