When Mr. Jim Kenney became chief executive of Philadelphia and moved his belongings – like the many treasured photos that decorated the cramped space he once occupied as a City Councilman – into the Mayor Office on the second floor of City Hall, he was intentional about the picture he hung on the wall where he would sit, not at a desk, but with others in a forum.
Of the many options for artwork that Mr. Kenney, who served more than two decades as a City Councilman At-Large, could’ve chosen to hang behind his seat, he selected a portrait of Mr. Octavius Catto, a 19th Century African-American baseball and cricket player (the best in the city at that time), civil rights activist and educator who was killed on October 10th in 1871 in a vicious attack equally fueled by racism and voter suppression: the Democratic Party attacked newly franchised black men who intended to vote for Republican candidates.
Such a choice for artwork, said State Representative Mr. Jim Roebuck, who over the years has advocated for increased funding for Cheyney University, the HBCU that sprouted out from the Institute for Colored Youth, where Mr. Catto was once the principal, “is a good indication of where the Mayor’s thinking is.”
The portrait does more than inspire Mr. Kenney, who even before becoming Mayor has led an effort to erect an Octavius Catto memorial outside City Hall on the southwest apron – the Catto Memorial statue is on track for a spring 2017 unveiling – but it’s a great conversation starter for those unaware of Mr. Catto’s contributions to Philadelphia.
Also in the Mayor’s Office, per Mr. Kenney’s fanaticism, are cases of the book ‘Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America,’ which he autographs and gives out to youth and adults alike to learn about a man who Mr. Kenney said “had balls” and was “the real deal.”
The authors of the aforementioned book, Mr. Daniel R. Biddle and Mr. Murray Dubin, today joined the Mayor at the Community College of Philadelphia for a panel discussion – the college’s president, Dr. Donald Generals, was also a panelist – about Mr. Catto’s legacy.
Unbeknownst to many Philadelphians, Mr. Catto, long before Mrs. Rosa Parks sought to end the segregation on public transit, successfully integrated Philadelphia’s street cars. Mr. Catto’s narrative is surely dominant but his story was made to be inconsequential.
“The powers that be were all about suppressing his amazing history,” Mr. Biddle – who said American history is incorrectly taught to students as if African-Americans were stupid, lazy and an irrelevant political force – told me minutes prior to Tuesday afternoon’s program.
Mr. Dubin, who like the Mayor grew up in South Philadelphia, said he was embarrassed that he had never heard of Mr. Catto.
“Catto was the first guy in Philadelphia who was a jock that cared about stuff off the field,” said Mr. Dubin, who, like his co-author Mr. Biddle, is a former local reporter. “The fact I’d never heard about him made me curious.”
Mr. Catto’s story was also relatively unknown to Mr. Biddle, who upon discovery saw it as “new and worth telling;” a story, he said, “that could make a difference.”
Mr. Kenney on Tuesday said that the history of Mr. Catto, and other extraordinary black Philadelphians, was purposefully kept out of the history books so that he, and white people in general, would perceive the African-American race as lacking a bounty of meaningful contributions to society. The Catto Memorial statue, which upon completion will be the first tribute to a black Philadelphian on public property – a miniature model of the impending memorial sat encased in front of the stage where the panelists Tuesday afternoon pontificated – will be as educational as it is artful.
As expected, critics, mostly white men, said the Mayor, have expressed opposition to the project, but they are, in this moment, seen as outliers. A more than decade effort is closer to fruition than ever before and Mr. Kenney remains focused on that, not the dissenters. Those dissenters, though they don’t today understand the significance of the project, will once it’s unveiled, said the Mayor, who listed SEPTA and private donors among the financial contributors.
When people – Philadelphians, tourists or visitors here for business – interact with the memorial, State Rep. Roebuck hopes they grow a genuine appreciation for a “black man who was a good athlete that fought for civil rights.”
Mr. Catto’s entire life, the Mayor said, is something we should be proud of and something we, especially the youth, should emulate. I’m sure he was fearful doing the things he did, Mr. Kenney stated, but nonetheless he “stepped into the abyss and looked the devil in the eye.”
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Photos courtesy of the author.