Statues have become the latest political battleground for Americans in 2017 and that doesn’t look like it is going to change any time soon. However, Philadelphia is opting not to hide from the controversy of tearing down/leaving alone Confederate statutes and they are instead trying to change the conversation entirely. Just this week Philadelphia chose to erect a statue of Octavius Valentine Catto, a civil rights activist from the 19th century. Erecting the statue did more than just change the conversation and discourse in Philadelphia, it also made history.
The statue of Octavius Valentine Catto was placed in front of City Hall facing out toward Broad Street. The striking statue features Catto leaning forward with his hands spread and open with his jaw raised in defiance. Catto’s visage on the City Hall’s front lawn was more than just a statement about civil rights — it was history. This is the first African American honorary statue erected on public property in Philadelphia, period. This momentous occasion felt like a turning point for those in attendance and it certainly marked a more lighthearted moment for newspaper headlines.
V. Chapman Smith, the VP of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund, was present for the unveiling of the statue. Smith spoke glowingly of the work that Catto did while urging others to choose to follow in Catto’s footsteps. Smith stated, “He was one of our nation’s most important citizens who worked for the good of America.” Of course, V. Chapman Smith wasn’t alone at the presentation and the appearance of Mayor Jim Kenney was particularly important to onlookers.
Mayor Kenney had first learned of the work done by Catto while he was working as a city councilman almost 15 years ago today. When Kenney first learned of what Catto did for civil rights he swore to himself that he would eventually see that the man was honored in Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney spoke at the event by saying, “My hope is that someday every child in Philadelphia will know as much about Octavius Valentine Catto, as they do about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Martin Luther King.”
For those unfamiliar with Catto the man was born in 1830 and was instrumental in the fight for civil rights throughout Philadelphia. Catto worked as teacher and he was staunch in his fight for better education for minorities and for segregation. Catto was murdered at age 32 on his way to vote on Election Day in 1971. His killer was never convicted.