How a Half-Million-Dollar Statue Can Point Us to the Future

Remembering positive moments in Philly's history will help define our city's future

This town has developed a bad habit of blotting our collective memory. Philadelphia’s an aging railroad and industrial city struggling to evolve into the place we’re going to be—a creative city. But how can we know where we’re going when we’ve lost track of where we’ve been?

We took a step in the right direction with the new President’s House, which commemorates the slaves who lived behind George Washington at 6th and Market, and reminds us that our first president flouted the law by rotating those slaves back and forth between Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Then in March, our cash-strapped city committed $500,000 toward an O.V. Catto statue. It will be the only permanent statuary honoring an African-American Philadelphian anywhere on City Hall’s property. It is long overdue. In 1871, Catto—a baseball player, scholar, teacher and civil-rights leader who fought to desegregate the streetcar and enable the black vote—was murdered in daylight as part of a grand scheme to tamp down black-voter turnout in the mayoral election. Likely among the most charismatic of public figures in the city’s history, he was cut down at age 32.

That cash should have been spent on rec centers or keeping swimming pools open, you say? I say exercising the mind and exercising the human spirit are equally important. Think of a statue as an easy way to get our kids engaged, to focus them on the history in their own backyard, to get them to listen to stories that link them to their ancestors.

When it comes to selling Philadelphia—our brand is history—you start to realize half a million for a statue is just a fraction of the effort we should be making. Museums are great, but film and the Internet can make our stories accessible to all.

We’re always after a great story, and Philadelphia’s history is compelling, shattering, appalling and entertaining. Our truth is always better than any fiction. We’ve got the goods. We don’t have to make this stuff up. It’s time we brought it all together in a “Many Stories, One City” type of project (similar to the Free Library’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” program) that involves schools, libraries, heritage institutions, community associations and families … everyone. Imagine the impact such a project would have on our collective memory, on our pride.

And on our brains.

This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.