Philly Just Unveiled Its First Memorial to an African-American Figure

Head to City Hall to check out the Octavius Catto statue.

Photo by Helen Amstrong

A 12-foot bronze statue of Octavius V. Catto — 19th century educator, baseball player, abolitionist, and civil rights activist — was unveiled today on the south apron of City Hall. The memorial, called “A Quest for Parity,” is the first monument to a single African-American person on public space in Philadelphia.

Catto was born in 1839 in South Carolina but raised in Philly. He held the role of student, teacher, and principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, now Cheyney University. Catto fought for emancipation alongside Frederick Douglass. He co-founded the Philadelphia Pythians, one of the first African-American baseball clubs. And Catto championed the desegregation of Philly’s trolley system.

He was shot and killed on Election Day in October 1871, a day marked with violence throughout the city as many white rioters stormed through black neighborhoods in an attempt to silence the black vote. But now, more than 140 years after his tragic death, he’s making history once more, right outside City Hall.

During an unveiling ceremony on Tuesday morning, the statue of Catto joined the ranks of over 1,500 public statues in the city. Traffic choked the streets around City Hall as hundreds of people descended on the building to catch a glimpse of the new memorial.

Photo by Helen Armstrong.

“In this design, I have endeavored to not only celebrate the life of Octavius Catto, but also the values that Catto and his peers embodied so brilliantly: respect, growth, fairness, education… and civic engagement,” said sculptor Branly Cadet.

The memorial features a voting box behind which stands the statue of Catto himself. There are also pillars representing trolley cars. And the memorial bears an excerpt from Catto’s writing: “There must come a change which shall force upon this nation that course which providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of peoples.”

The Octavius V. Catto Society, American Legion Post 405, Military Order Loyal Legion of the United States, and the 3rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops all laid wreaths at the foot of the statue to honor Catto.

“May the unveiling of this memorial herald a new era of celebration,” said Cadet, “herald a new era of acknowledgment and understanding, and herald a new era of deep and lasting healing.”