Sep 27, 2017

Hidden Histories and Missing Monuments: Octavius Catto

by: Laura Kochman

If you were at our first Monument Lab Live event at PAFA on September 13, you heard Mayor Kenney talk about the forthcoming Octavius Catto monument at City Hall. Maybe you, like us, have been eagerly waiting for the unveiling of the new artwork celebrating this unsung civil rights hero—though not part of Monument Lab, the new monument by artist Branly Cadet speaks to the project’s central questions about representation and collective memory. A Quest for Parity is the first statue of an individual African American on public property in the City of Philadelphia.


Who is Octavius Catto? You might not know, because he’s been left out of mainstream history books. Assassinated at 32 in 1871, Catto was a civil rights activist who fought to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolley system and ratify the 15th Amendment in Pennsylvania. The educator and baseball player also worked to bring newly enfranchised black voters to the polls in opposition to the political establishment. He has been remembered within Philadelphia’s black community as the namesake for the Octavius V. Catto Lodge of the Black Elks, but has remained largely absent from historical conversations about the city. “Catto’s story was absent from Philadelphia schools. He was not mentioned in textbooks. Catto was an invisible man,” says Stephan Salisbury of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 2010, Temple University Press published Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. In 2014, Catto was celebrated in the seven-month-long Philadelphia Freedom Festival, bringing his story to light through song, dance, spoken word, and a Philadelphia Orchestra performance complete with an Octavius Catto reenactor. Now in 2017, his likeness stands in front of City Hall, where passersby can read about his life and legacy. Octavius Catto has always been part of the fabric of Philadelphia, and now his story will be illuminated every day.


Join us on Wednesday, October 18, for the next Monument Lab Live event, themed around a discussion of hidden histories and missing monuments, featuring speakers and presenters who interrogate questions of authorship, representation, and history: Paper Monuments (NOLA), Vashti DuBois (Executive Director, The Colored Girls Museum, Philadelphia), Jarrett Drake (digital archivist, Cambridge, MA), Venissa Santí (Cuban–American vocalist, Philadelphia), and Monument Lab artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Marisa Williamson.


Lead Monument Lab partners include the City of Philadelphia; Philadelphia Parks & Recreation; Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy; Historic Philadelphia; Independence National Historic Park; Penn Institute for Urban Research; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Price Lab for Digital Humanities; and the University of Pennsylvania.

Major support for Monument Lab projects staged in Philadelphia’s five squares has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

An expanded artist roster and projects at five neighborhood sites have been made possible by a significant grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Lead corporate sponsor is Bank of America.

Additional support has been provided by Susanna Lachs & Dean Adler, William & Debbie Becker, CLAWS Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, Davis Charitable Foundation, Hummingbird Foundation, J2 Design, National Endowment for the Arts, Nick & Dee Adams Charitable Fund, Parkway Corporation, PECO, Relief Communications LLC, Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square, Stacey Spector & Ira Brind, Tiffany Tavarez, Tuttleman Family Foundation, Joe & Renee Zuritsky, and 432 Kickstarter backers. Support for Monument Lab‘s final publication provided by the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation.

Media partner: WHYY

Last updated: Sep 28, 2017

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