Philadelphia honors African-American activist with City Hall statue

CENTER CITY (WPVI) -- The first statue in Philadelphia's collection dedicated to an African American was unveiled Tuesday outside City Hall.

The statue of 19th-century activist Octavius Catto is called "The Quest for Parity."

Catto is remembered for his tireless fight for equal rights for all long before the Civil Rights Movement began.

The Civil War veteran was also a scholar, educator, and athlete. He fought for a better education for African Americans, led efforts to desegregate the streetcar and pushed for equal rights.

Catto was shot and killed at age 32.

"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 Jim Kenney said.

Catto was born free on February 22, 1839, in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved to Philadelphia as a child. In 1858, he graduated as valedictorian from what would become Cheyney University, the nation's oldest historically black college, and became an English and math teacher at his alma mater.

By his early 20s, Catto already was an influential black Philadelphian, serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard during the Civil War and recruiting blacks to serve in the Army. He also was a pioneering athlete, helping to establish Philadelphia as a major hub of the Negro Leagues and pushing to integrate baseball decades before Jackie Robinson would break the sport's color barrier.
Catto's work advocating for voting rights would ultimately bring about his untimely death. He worked to get Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for black men. On October 10, 1871 - the first Election Day blacks were allowed to vote - Catto was shot to death on his doorstep by Irish-American ward bosses.

Kenney, who has Irish-American roots, has championed the memorial since his days on City Council. It will be the first public sculpture at City Hall since a statue of retailer John Wanamaker was installed in 1923.

Catto biographer Murray Dubin said he was embarrassed and angry to have only learned about the activist in his 40s.

"This guy was extraordinary," Dubin said. "I went to high school here. I went to college here. It's this hole of history that no one ever filled in for me. ... To have this visual symbol of an African-American civil rights hero in this city, we've never had anything like this. It couldn't be more important."

This unveiling comes amid a heated conversation over confederate monuments and Philadelphia's own Frank Rizzo statue, which stands just several hundred yards away.

The former mayor's complicated racial legacy has sparked debates and even protests over whether he should be honored with his likeness on city grounds.

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