By Mayor Jim Kenney
My hope is that some day, every child in Philadelphia — and America — will know as much about Octavius V. Catto as they do about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
This week, 146 years after Catto’s death, we finally unveiled a statue honoring him. It rests on the southwest corner of City Hall and is the first of its kind: a single memorial to a specific Black American on public land in Philadelphia.
A major in the Army during the Civil War, an intellectual, an educator, athlete, civil rights activist who desegregated trolley cars in Philadelphia in the mid-1860s, and a Philadelphian, Catto is a legendary American figure whose young life and tremendous accomplishments were cut short.
But, now, finally, Catto is honored and publicly recognized for generations to see.
It was humbling honor to be serving as your Mayor the day we at long last recognized Catto as the great American hero that he is. It was also a 15-year journey working on this statue.
While it’s worth reflecting on the passage of those 15 years — during which time America elected our first African American president, legally recognized love between consenting adults regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, and guaranteed health care coverage of all Americans — we must also reflect on the passage of 146 years since Catto’s assassination.
It was October 10, 1871, when a young 32-year-old Catto was gunned down on South Street while urging other Black men to vote in the first federal election after enactment of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed them the right to vote.
A lot has happened during these 146 years: a lot of good, but also a lot of not so good — especially in terms of how some native-born minorities and newcomers were, and in some cases continue to be, treated in America.
The American Experiment is a work in progress.
And, we have much more work to do in how we treat and perceive each other.
Hopefully, all of us can be inspired by the courage and determination of O. V. Catto, who was willing to sacrifice his own life for liberty, for justice, and equality for all Americans.
He’s a true American hero. And, like many other unheralded, nameless Black American heroes, he should be revered, honored and recognized.
Their lives and accomplishments should be part of the daily curriculum in our schools — not just during the shortest month of the year.
When we unveiled Catto’s statue, hundreds of Philadelphians came out to honor him as a community. I’m so proud of all those who came out.
I’m also incredibly proud of, and grateful for, Philadelphians who continue to make our city the greatest, most welcoming and diverse city in the world.
What a fitting tribute that so many came out to honor Catto — together.
And, what a fitting tribute that Catto will now be seen by all visitors and Philadelphians who stop by City Hall.