The first-of-its kind statue of an 19th Century African-American superstar athlete and civil-rights leader cements itself in Center City Philadelphia amid a contentious national debate about race, sports and whether gameday is the appropriate time to dissent.
A sculpture of Octavius V. Catto, whose accomplished life was ended due to fatal 1871 Election-Day violence in Philadelphia – will stand firmly on the South apron of City Hall looking in the direction of the City’s sporting complexes. Although fixed in place, the statue, which will be unveiled this Tuesday at 11am, possesses the potential to move the conversation on race and sports, at least in Philadelphia, towards an acknowledgement that an individual can simultaneously be an activist and an athlete, both a player and a protester.
What Mr. Colin Kaepernick is doing as an athlete – highlighting an injustice via protest while engaging communities – isn’t a new phenomenon. Rather, it’s a model erected on the shoulders of gentlemen like Mr. Catto, a star cricket and baseball player who was said to be linked to every important black social movement of his time.
“Catto set the tone” for how athletes display their social consciousness, said the reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, who’s the 52nd pastor of Mother Bethel A.ME., a historic black Philadelphia church founded by Rev. Richard Allen, an influential black leader who died in 1831, eight years prior to Mr. Catto’s birth.
Rev. Tyler, who once ran a U.S history blog, said Mr. Catto, whose father was a prominent minister, likely drew his inspiration from Rev. Allen, who was considered a legend among free black people (those not born into slavery).
“Kaepernick is an extension of Catto, Catto was an extension of Richard Allen and Allen was an extension of those whose names we may never know,” said Rev. Tyler, an academic and media-maker who regularly engages in, and opines about, protest culture. “Equality was at the heart of all their movements,” he added.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who has worked for years to bring the Catto memorial to life, would list baseball hall-of-famer Mr. Jackie Robinson among the aforementioned names of famous and socially-conscious Blacks.
“Jackie Robinson, in his final days on Earth, did not stand for the national anthem,” Mayor Kenney recalled on Monday morning.
The 59-year-old Democrat mayor, who learned about Mr. Catto when he was 40, often calls him the “Jackie Robinson of his day.” But more accurately stated, Mr. Jackie Robinson blazed a trail smoothed over by the 19th Century Philadelphian, thus Mr. Robinson was the Octavius Catto of his time.
Long before Mr. Robinson left the Negro leagues to break the color-barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Catto, who was shot and killed while heading to the polls, helped establish Philadelphia as a major part of the infrastructure that supported colored-only baseball games, while also attempting to get his Pythian Baseball Club admitted into the then newly-formed Pennsylvania Base Ball Association.
Rev. Tyler said the Catto statue coming to the forefront at this moment is timely and “absolutely relevant” to the conversation which was sparked by U.S. President Donald J. Trump attacking N.F.L players who protest the national anthem and the owners who allow it. And he’s right.
The Catto statue contributes context to a debate on the expectations of athletes. It reminds us not only of a tradition of radical black resistance but of black athletes exceeding the expectations set before them by their public. The public may proclaim the need to separate sports and politics, but as the soon-to-be unveiled Octavius Catto statue proves, the heroes are often the ones who bridge the two in the name of social change.
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Photo courtesy of the author.