Rediscovering Catto

19th Century civil rights leader will be featured topic in February

(Photo Left) Octavius Catto statue at City Hall.  Photo by Sarah J. Glover

When Black History Month arrives in February, Octavius Catto will stand front and center in the city of Philadelphia.


It’s been nearly a year since the statue of the 19th century civil rights activist, who was gunned down on South Street after urging Blacks to vote, was erected on the southern-facing apron of City Hall. Since then, the city has continued to get to know him, and this will particularly be the case next month.


The Free Library of Philadelphia, on Feb. 1, will host a panel discussion around its screening of the documentary, “Octavius V. Catto: A Legacy for the 21st Century.” The panel discussion will feature scholars, authors and experts on Catto, and will be moderated by Yaasiyn Muhammad, social studies curriculum specialist for the School District of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative.


Attendees will leave with a complimentary copy of a broadsheet newsprint biography titled, “Octavius V. Catto: Remembering a Forgotten Hero.”


The statue memorializing Catto was the first ever erected of a black man on city public property. He is mostly known as a martyr who was shot down on Election Day in 1871 near his home in the 800 block of South Street. At the time, he was also a respected scholar, a popular Cricket and baseball player and a recruiter for Civil War troops, securing black men to fight for the Union. So instrumental was his work, that Catto, who did not serve actively, was commissioned a major.


The lack of local recognition on Catto bothers few people more than Barney Richardson, an informal historian on Blacks in South Philadelphia. He is fond of informing all who will listen that the first structure that honored Catto was not the statue, but the Octavius V. Catto Lodge, built for the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World, also known as the Black Elks. It opened in 1903, at 16th and South Streets and later 16th and Fitzwater.


“There is so much that even Blacks in Philadelphia don't know about black history” says Richardson. "We used to share our history with the younger generations."


The Free Library is seeking to rectify some of the lack of knowledge around Catto by hosting workshops featuring the documentary at neighborhood libraries throughout Black History Month.


The library is calling these movie screening events interactive workshops for the whole family, featuring hands-on activities and examination of primary sources. The discussions will feature "a rotating cast of experts involved in this celebration of Catto and his achievements.”


Times and locations can be found at: bit.ly/cattophilly or freelibrary.org.



Rediscovering Catto
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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