Just as the national debate over controversial statues and monuments was reaching its peak, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled a new statue at City Hall to great fanfare. “A Quest for Parity” commemorates the life and achievements of Octavius V. Catto, a 19th century African-American civil rights activist. The memorial, which debuted on Sept. 26, is the city’s first public monument depicting an individual African-American.
The Catto statue preserves the memory of a man who, only a few years ago, looked to be forgotten to history. But it also stands as a monument to the importance of the diverse voices who shaped Philadelphia’s—and the country’s—history.
A Life Remembered
Octavius V. Catto was born in South Carolina in 1839. His mother was a member of a prominent free family in Charleston; his father was a former slave who became an ordained Presbyterian minister. Catto moved to Philadelphia at a young age with his family and studied at the Institute for Colored Youth, where he excelled and graduated as valedictorian. After completing a year of postgraduate study, he returned to the Institute as a teacher.
Catto was well-known in his time as an exceptional scholar and athlete. He helped found the Banneker Literary Institute and was selected to join The Franklin Institute, even though some objected to admitting a black man. He ran the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, for which he played and coached, and he tried to break down racial barriers in baseball nearly a century before Jackie Robinson would take the field.
During the Civil War, Catto was dedicated to the Union cause. Along with Frederick Douglass and members of the Union League in Philadelphia, Catto helped recruit 11 regiments of African-American troops to fight in the war. Catto was commissioned as a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard but never saw action.
His achievements do not end there, however. Catto also was committed to fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans in Philadelphia and throughout the country. He spoke out against the segregation of the city’s trolley system and engaged in early acts of civil disobedience by arranging for groups of African-Americans to board street cars. On one occasion, Catto boarded a street car and stayed on the car overnight when its driver chose to take the car out of service rather than transport Catto or ask him to leave. These efforts were instrumental in getting Pennsylvania to enact a law prohibiting segregation on state transit systems.
Catto also fought for voting rights for African-Americans. After African-American men were granted the right to vote by the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Catto worked to get black voters registered and to protect them from those who tried to block this new constitutional right.
Unfortunately, Catto’s life was cut short by the very racism he had fought against. On Election Day in 1871, tensions between white and black voters ran high, and riots followed. White Democratic leaders who sought to suppress the African-American Republican vote turned to violence. While returning home that afternoon, 32-year-old Catto was confronted by a group of white men. An altercation ensued, and Catto was shot and killed. His assassin was later acquitted.
Although his funeral was one of the country’s largest at the time—bringing in mourners from around the United States—Catto’s legacy was largely overshadowed by the civil rights advocates who followed him. A headstone erected on his burial site in 2007 titled him “The Forgotten Hero.”
A Legacy Honored
A dedicated group of Philadelphians, however, sought to ensure that Catto received the recognition he richly deserved. Through the Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund, a nonprofit corporation with the mission of preserving the memory of Catto and his achievements, the group sought to erect a monument at Philadelphia’s City Hall. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney played a prominent role in these efforts, beginning when he served in city council. Law firm Pepper Hamilton has represented the fund on a pro bono basis for several years.
The fund chose artist Branly Cadet to sculpt the memorial. Cadet, whose previous public works include the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Memorial in New York City, was also commissioned by the Los Angeles Dodgers to sculpt a statue of Jackie Robinson as the inaugural statue for Dodger Stadium. (That statue was unveiled in April 2017.)
The centerpiece of Cadet’s “A Quest for Parity” is a larger-than-life statue of Catto walking toward a ballot box, in recognition of Catto’s advocacy of voting rights for African-Americans. Standing behind Catto are five granite pillars, which represent an 1800s trolley car—a nod to Catto’s work to desegregate the city’s public transportation system.
The monument unveiling was a gala affair, featuring remarks from Mayor Kenney and several representatives of the Catto Memorial Fund and music from the St. Thomas Gospel Choir Ensemble. The event drew national media coverage and was attended by a large, diverse crowd, including Philadelphia’s political, religious, business and civic leaders, as well as students and ordinary citizens of all ages and races. The fund continues to raise money for educational programming.
It took nearly 150 years for Catto to receive the recognition he deserved, but Philadelphia’s newest statue is an important step forward in representing the diversity of our country’s heroes at a time when that diversity has never been more important.
Michael H. Reed is a member of Pepper Hamilton’s corporate restructuring and bankruptcy practice group and concentrates his practice in the field of bankruptcy and insolvency law. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and was the first person of color to lead the PBA.
Richard W. Foltz Jr. is a partner in the Philadelphia office of Pepper Hamilton and a member of the construction practice group.
Joseph J. Serritella retired from Pepper Hamilton in 2015, where his practice focused on intellectual property, including copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret and unfair competition matters.