Philadelphia honors black activist with statue

Hundreds of people gathered at City Hall in Philadelphia to celebrate the unveiling of a monument paying tribute to a 19th-century black activist.

More than an hour after the ceremonial unveiling was complete, the monument to 19th century Philadelphia activist Octavius V. Catto titled, “A Quest for Parity was still surrounded by admirers of all ages and colors.

They were there to be part of history to witness Philly’s first-ever tribute to an individual African-American on city-owned land. History delayed, but not denied.

“I'm overjoyed,” said an older African-American man who said he grew up in the south.  “Tears come to my eyes."

"It is the right time for this statue to be here,” said a woman who moved to Philly from Jamaica.  “And I thank God it is here."

Catto changed life in mid-19th century Philadelphia. He was a star athlete, raised black troops to fight in the Civil War, worked to desegregate the city's public transportation and led the local effort to win voting rights for blacks.

 It was that effort that led to his assassination on Election Day 1871. He was just 32 years old.

The late-morning monument ceremony Tuesday was packed with dignitaries here to see Catto receive his due and to put the tribute into context.

"Monuments are not neutral, passive or accidental,” said V. Chapman Smith, vice-president of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund.  “They carry great meaning."

Mayor Jim Kenney led the 15 year effort to generate the support- and the money- to create the Catto monument. He called out the Trump administration while describing Catto as an inspiration for us all,

“As we confront a mean-spirited ugliness and intolerance, emanating from our nation's capital."

Indeed, the Catto monument arrives at a time when race and tributes are part of a heated national argument. Just a block away sits the Frank Rizzo statue at the center of the local dispute.

It is hoped the Catto monument will ignite a new conversation about diversity and public activism.

The words spoken by Mayor Kenney echoed through the plaza as young people gazed up at the impressive monument: “You have the opportunity by viewing this statue to make your own contribution to our city and our country.  And I know you can because I know he did  and I know you will."