Why Charlottesville? Of all the places to “Unite the Right,” why did the organizers choose a quiet, left-leaning college town? Because last February, the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia voted to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from a public park. A lawsuit filed the following month by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups put that move on hold. The decision of Charlottesville’s City Council was not unique.
In New Orleans, monuments to the Confederacy have been eradicated over the past several months. Richmond mayor Levon Storey has assembled a commission to explore ways to “add context” to that city’s Monument Avenue, a central city artery lined with statues of Confederate heroes.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we Yankees here in Philadelphia, the birthplace of freedom, could smugly witness these developments from afar? But take a look at our city’s public art, and you may be surprised. Or embarrassed. Probably angered; possibly even outraged.
How many statues of individual African Americans on public land can you think of in Center City? If you’re stumped, it is with good reason. Zero. There are none. In front of the Free Library on the Parkway, you can find the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. When the statue was completed in 1934, it was relegated to an obscure corner of Fairmount Park. It took 60 years for the statue to be moved to the more prominent location that the Memorial’s supporters had envisioned. A statue of Richard Allen was erected on the corner of 6th and Lombard in July 2016. However, it is on church property and the cost of the statue was paid for wholly by private funds.
To find a public statue of an individual African American, you would need to go well west or south of downtown Philadelphia. The Negro Leagues Memorial at Belmont and Parkside features a seven-foot bronze sculpture of a black baseball player. Or follow Kelly Drive to the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial where you will find a statue simply titled The Slave. The biggest concentration of individual black men in bronze, however, can be found in far South Philadelphia. Boxer Joe Frazier and basketball players Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving are all immortalized in the stadium area. For those of you keeping score, that’s four athletes and a slave.
Still feeling superior to residents of those Southern cities?
Finally, though, an individual African American of a different type is about to get the kind of recognition he deserves and in one of the most central and significant locations in the city.
A statue of Octavius V. Catto, 19th century scholar, activist, community organizer, orator, teacher, Civil War recruiter, National Guard major, and, yes, even athlete (he played second base for the Pythians, the city’s first black team) will be unveiled on Tuesday, September 26 on the south apron of City Hall. Tragically, Catto was killed by an assassin’s bullet fired at point blank range on Election Day 1871, a day of widespread violence meant to suppress the black vote. This mayoral election was the first to be held after passage of the 15th Amendment extending the franchise to black men, a law for which Catto had actively campaigned. A nationally known figure at the time of his death at just 32 years of age, Catto’s funeral procession was the largest the city had ever seen other than that of Abraham Lincoln a few years earlier.
Like those of too many African American heroes and heroines, however, Catto’s story faded into obscurity. When then City Councilperson Jim Kenney learned of Catto in 2003, he was shocked to have never heard of such a remarkable Philadelphian. Kenney began pushing for a memorial to Catto, and the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund was officially launched in June of 2006.
Co-chairs Jim Straw and Carol Lawrence began seeking both private donations and public funds, a process that took longer than anyone had hoped. They also spearheaded the effort of finding a sculptor for the project, eventually choosing Oakland-based artist, Branly Cadet. Cadet has done several large statues of African American figures including one of Adam Clayton Powell located in Harlem on the street named for the famous black legislator.
In June, 2016, Cadet revealed his plans for an installation called A Quest for Parity. In addition to a ten-foot sculpture of Catto, the memorial features five granite pillars arranged to evoke a horse drawn streetcar, a type of conveyance that Catto fought successfully to desegregate, and a ballot box to symbolize his commitment to voting rights.
Although Mayor Kenney probably imagined a much earlier date for the statue’s unveiling, it is fitting that Kenney is in office when his vision of over a decade comes to fruition. Not only did the Mayor catalyze the organization of the Catto Memorial Fund, he chose a portrait of Catto to hang over his mayoral desk. He gives copies of Tasting Freedom: Ocatvius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, to young visitors to his office and he frequently refers to Catto as “both the Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson of his age.”
While Philadelphia’s sculptural landscape will remain populated overwhelmingly with statues of white men for the foreseeable future, the O.V. Catto Memorial is a fitting and important start to having our public art represent the diversity that has characterized our city since its founding.
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Whom do you propose as a suitable representative of blacks to be memorialized in Center City?
Adam Clayton Powell had very little black blood. Calling him “black” reinforces the silly “one drop” rule of the past. He was hazel-eyed, blond, and passed as white growing up. He was involved in scandals as a politician. I would not use him as an example.
Powell (obviously) self identified as Black. Why should your judgement override his? Arrogant much? In the Black community ethnicity is about more than one’s physical features. Not sure why you’re complaining about a statue that sits in NYC in the comments of an article about PHILADELPHIA. Anyway…
Great article, thank you. Glad to hear of Kenney’s championing of the Catto statue, but I say we vacate a certain pedestal in front of the Municipal Services Building for it.
Dear Amy and company,
Thank you for this wonderful article. I learned a lot reading it, and am further made aware of the many areas of ignorance, injustice and obfuscation the exists everywhere–including in my own life.
I hope to get to the September 26 unveiling of this new monument to Octavius Catto.
Thanks for commenting, Rosalie!
I have mixed feelings on this particular sculpture group. While I’m thrilled to have a proper figurative sculpture of Catto in a prominent place, the granite pseudo-trolley cars look ridiculous. The portrait and an appropriate inscription should say enough, in my opinion.
Rather than pillory the city for past failures, why not just be proud of the progress that is in fact being made?
I agree. Not an attractive memorial complimenting the architectural design of city hall. Didn’t we have a Philadelphia artist available to design the monument?
I believe they felt it important that an African-American sculptor do the work and the man they found is very capable from other examples I’ve seen.
Thanks for a very good and very timely piece.
There is another piece of public art that depicts an African American. It’s a panel about the first anti-slavery protest by white people (in 1688) against slavery on a monument to Pastorius at Vernon Park in Germantown. In 1933, Hitler sent a congratulatory telegram at it’s dedication. See more:
https://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2015/06/monumental-complications-in-germantown/ To keep it from becoming a rallying point for Nazis, the monument was boxed in during World War II.
So interesting! Thanks, Ken
Octavius Catto statue looks beautiful — not sure I like the other “information blocks” that go along with it. Art that spells out too much ends up being distractive. Catto has several places that honor him — A PA Historical Marker in Philly. A Marker at his Grave in the Historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA. Might be more that others know about.