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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