On Tuesday, the city of Philadelphia will resurrect the memory of one of its most influential citizens, Octavius Catto, a civil rights activist whose work was instrumental in getting black men the right to vote in 1870, and who helped desegregate the city’s transportation system.
Catto’s story has been erased from history books—a story itself that is not at all uncommon—meaning that many Philadelphians aren’t aware of the man who helped reshape their city and the society they live in.
According to Philly.com, Catto was something of a Renaissance man:
Educator, scholar, writer, pioneering baseball player, and fearless civil rights activist, Catto had fought unflaggingly for an equitable society in the wake of the Civil War. He successfully protested to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolleys, he fought to pass constitutional amendments enfranchising black citizens, and then he worked to bring those new black voters to the polls.
Catto was assassinated in 1871—only six years after the Civil War ended—when gangs of armed white Philadelphians took to the streets to prevent black people from voting. That year’s was the first election in which the city’s black men could participate.
According to Philadelphia magazine, Catto was shot twice in the back by a white man after sending teachers and students at his school home early that day, lest they encounter any violence. He was 32.
On Tuesday afternoon in Philadelphia, 146 years after he was gunned down two doors away from his house, a monument to Catto will be unveiled at City Hall.
As Philly.com reports, Catto’s likeness will be the first public monument to honor a specific black American on the city’s public landscape, and the first statue to go up at City Hall in nearly a century.
Catto’s statue is officially titled A Quest for Parity and is the work of Branley Cadet, a black artist based out of California.
Cadet recognizes that the site on which the monument will be erected was “transformed” by Catto’s work.
“They fought to desegregate the trolley cars,” Cadet told Philly.com about the civil rights leader and his contemporaries. “They fought to ratify the 15th Amendment. So the world I live in is very different from the world Octavius Catto lived in.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledges that the lack of knowledge about black historical figures isn’t accidental.
“I think Malcolm X was right when he was quoted as saying, I’m paraphrasing, that the deeds of black people in this country have been systematically removed, the pages have been ripped out of the history books on purpose,” Kenney told Philly.com, adding that respect between different groups isn’t possible without first respecting everybody’s efforts to improve American society.
“If you don’t know … about the African-American contribution to Philadelphia or the United States, then you can’t mutually appreciate how everybody contributed,” he said.
Read more at philly.com.